Why the RIC deserve to be remembered

This historian believes the RIC were Irishmen who should be remembered by the State. Do you agree?
Why the RIC deserve to be remembered
The Royal Irish Constabulary on parade. 493 members were killed in the War of Independence.

IT is disappointing that the attempt to hold a commemorative event for the RIC has fallen through due to the controversy it aroused.

This reaction has at times been a bit hysterical, and indicates maybe a wider societal insecurity in how we approach commemoration in general.

It is now 100 years on, surely we as a society are secure enough that we can approach the period from a more human perspective, rather than being swept into a binary narrative of good versus bad with people boxed away neatly as ‘imperialists’ and ‘colonisers’? History is not neat and needs empathy to fully understand its complexity. Through that, bridges can be built between people and even in some cases healing can take place.

This is what makes the controversy around the RIC commemorative event so disappointing; in effect it was predominantly centred around men who were ‘one of our own’. They were largely Irish Catholic and I presume the majority were Irish nationalists, but within the Parnell tradition of constitutional nationalism.

There is an historical context for the RIC’s reaction to the start of the War of Independence in 1919, when two of their members were killed. Just four and a half years before, Irish constitutional nationalism was undoubtedly the predominant viewpoint of the majority of Irish people. Sinn Fein was largely non-existent.

Admittedly, that electorate was of a restricted nature, but if you gauge support from the National Volunteers, which was open to everybody, and the split that occurred at the start of the Great War when Redmond supported Britain, only about 12,000 of the 120,000-strong movement split to form the Irish Volunteers, who wanted total separation from Britain. Would it thus be fair to say 10% of the population had radical republican political perspectives?

The Rising changed things very quickly in Ireland, within two and a half years radical separatism was the majority viewpoint of the people. The RIC were certainly caught off guard by this rapid change. Here was a force whose membership in the southern areas were very much Irish Catholic, probably sympathetic to Irish constitutional nationalism in a private capacity, probably expected to still be the police force in a Home Rule Ireland, suddenly being shot at and killed by a group who a few years earlier were a relatively insignificant minority. The RIC had the endorsement of the Catholic Church and were respected members of the community, dealing with law and order on a daily basis before the political struggle manifested itself.

You now have contemporary commentators a-historically funnelling all the injustices of British rule, leapfrogging historical periods and conflating into a binary narrative of oppressors and oppressed, which is unfair and unjust to the RIC of 1919.

It must have been a shock to them to suddenly be seen as an enemy in communities where they had served so dutifully for many years.

The facts remains, there were no oppressive laws in operation in Ireland at the time that were not operating in Scotland, Wales or England.

Sinn Fein had received a mandate in December, 1918, for a separate, independent Ireland but it was only six weeks later that two RIC officers were shot dead in its name. The wheels of democratic politics are slow, more so at a time when full democratic instincts were only developing. Obviously a lot of young Irishmen at the time thought it too slow altogether.

Undoubtedly, the RIC response to that threat was in some cases atrocious, but again it was within a context in which their colleagues were in a lot of cases just cold-bloodily assassinated in the street. That produces anger, and anger produces responses that are not good for a whole lot of different reasons. Which in turn produces further retaliations, etc, and a vicious cycle of violence ensues.

It was within this cycle of violence that the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were deployed, adding another dimension to the War of Independence, and it really is through them that the war is seen for most people in southern Ireland. Again, it would be good if we could attempt to humanise them, try to understand why they did as they did.

It is important to do so now as Brexit is coming and a united Ireland is more of a possibility. If we truly want that, these types of emphatic leaps of understanding will have to be made.

Which is why the RIC commemorative event is a missed opportunity to remember people who were really one of our own but, in those rare periods of time when history speeds up, were caught out of sync with the march of the Irish nation.

Nonetheless, they were Irishmen who deserve to be remembered by the State.

Mark Cronin, local historian, Blackpool, Cork

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