By Jack Holland
In the continuing debate over police reform in Northern Ireland provoked by the Patten Commission report, those who are opposed most vigorously to many of the report’s recommendations are almost always Unionists. However, the identification of the RUC with the Unionist Party (or even with Unionism) should not be made too glibly. Some RUC officers take a different view.
One veteran RUC man, when he heard about the recent meeting in the Ulster Hall, held to protest against the Patten report, said: "I don’t want any Unionist standing up for me." He explained that during more than 20 years of service he had been shot at three times. Two of those attacks where carried out by Protestant gunmen. On one occasion, his station in the Shankill Road area came under sustained fire from the local UDA. On another, colleagues who were stationed there were lured into an ambush by a telephone call purporting to report a robbery. When the police arrived at the scene, gunmen of the UDA and UVF were waiting for them and opened fire, killing one — Constable Michael Logue, a Catholic, a relation of a leading member of the SDLP.
When Unionists and people like the Rev. Ian Paisley "defend" the police, they tend not to dwell on the violence that Protestants have directed against the RUC over the years. While in terms of the numbers killed loyalist violence is small when compared with the toll taken by republicans, it is still a significant factor in the Troubles.
As is by now well known, the first RUC man to die in the recent conflict, Victor Arbuckle, died at the hands of Protestant gunmen in October 1969. But it tends to be forgotten that the last RUC officer killed — Frank O’Reilly — was also the victim of loyalist violence. Constable O’Reilly died after being hit by a pipe bomb thrown during the loyalist protests at Drumcree in July 1998.
In between the deaths of Arbuckle and O’Reilly, loyalists were responsible for the deaths of another six RUC men. Among them was Constable Andrew Harron. He stopped a stolen car on the M2 on Oct. 17, 1972. Gunmen in the car shot him, and he died four days later. The killers were UDA men and one of them was the only man in the recent history of the Troubles to be sentenced to death. However, the sentence was commuted later to life in prison. (Republicans took a leading part in the campaign to save the UDA man’s life.)
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Loyalists were also responsible for murdering the first woman RUC officer in the current conflict. On March 16, 1975, Constable Mildred Harrison was killed when a loyalist bomb exploded outside a bar in Bangor. Nine years later, loyalist bombers claimed the life of another RUC officer, this time in Belfast. Constable Michael Dawson was their victim.
One of those who attended the protest meeting in the Ulster Hall on Saturday, Sept. 18, was Violet Taylor. Her son Gregory was an RUC officer who fell foul of loyalist anger. In 1997, he was attacked outside a pub in Ballymoney by drunken members of a loyalist band and kicked to death. They were angered by the fact that the RUC was blocking Orange marchers from going through the center of a nearby Nationalist village.
The likes of Paisley and his loyalist supporters want to make an issue out of police reform. But some policemen remember the contribution of Protestant extremists to the crisis in the North — the riots they provoked, which frequently led to death and destruction. It is with supreme cynicism that Paisley and his gang try to identify with law and order since they have been behind so many campaigns of disruption and violence in which police officers were injured, sometimes seriously.
The Ulster Unionist Party is also guilty in the past of supporting campaigns of disruption which have led to violence. In the wake of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Ulster Unionists organized massive rallies to encourage Protestants to reject it, and these in turn provoked attacks on the homes of police officers who lived in Protestant areas. Frequently, petrol bombs were hurled through windows and many families of police officers had narrow escapes. There were more than 500 such attacks, and 120 RUC families were forced to flee their homes in a few months.
Unionists might try in vain to dissociate themselves from this campaign, but they cannot. They openly appealed to RUC officers to defy orders, staging what was a blatant attempt to subvert the police force. Now, these are often the same people who are masquerading as police supporters in their latest campaign against the Patten Commission report’s recommendations.
The truth is that loyalists, often with the tacit support of the more "respectable" Unionists, have over the years put an extraordinary strain on the manpower and resources of the RUC, which the police felt would have been better deployed against the republican movement’s armed campaign. In a police report published in 1985, the chief constable, Jack Hermon, who was on the platform at the Ulster Hall, roundly condemned "the defiant insistence of some sections of the community on parades and routes regardless of circumstances" and the "insensitive, provocative bands and demonstrations and the tensions they cause." It was pointed out that in a six-week period in 1984, policing the 2,400 demonstrations — the vast majority of them Protestant — cost £2 million pounds (about $3.5 million) and required the equivalent of 39,000 police officers.
This is not to mention the massive outbreaks of violence in August 1969, March 1973, May 1974 and May 1977, organized by loyalists and often supported by Unionists, which brought the province to the verge of civil war. Where was the concern for good policing on these occasions?
That is, Unionist and loyalist concern for the RUC is qualified, and has a political tag to it. It is not so much the RUC as a law-and-order body that they care about but as an institution that represents them, just as did the old Stormont. Were they really concerned about law and order then they would distance themselves from the Orangemen who continue to defy the law in Drumcree.
Of course, the violent and disruptive history of Unionism in the North shows that they will do no such thing. So they will go on crying about the fate of the RUC on one hand while condoning breaking the law on the other. It was ever thus.