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Dr Mary McAuliffe: Debate about an RIC commemoration needs more than a Black and Tans hashtag

The controversy around the RIC commemoration is entirely understandable, but it’s not that simple, writes Dr Mary McAuliffe.

Dr Mary McAuliffe

OVER RECENT DAYS controversy has exploded across print and social media over the government’s plan to hold a commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Dublin Castle on 17 January 2020.

According to publicity the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, and the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris will attend and address the proceedings.

Flanagan had previously, in September, attended a ceremony to commemorate the RIC men killed during the War of Independence.

It is entirely understandable that this decision to commemorate the RIC at the start of 2020 – before any of the major commemorative events of the War during 1920 and into 1921 – has caused controversy.

The government must bear some responsibility for this, both in its un-nuanced communications and the fact that the All-Party Consultation Group on Commemorations does not seem to have been consulted on this particular event.

Is this a solo run by the minister and the Historical and Reconciliation Police Society (HARP)?

005 Harris Flanagan Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan are set to attend the commemoration in Dublin Castle on 17 January. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The issues get lost in social media

Social media is a very difficult place to have a reasoned and informed discussion on anything. As a feminist and a historian of women, I am very aware of this.

The hashtag #blackandtans began trending over the weekend in relation to this event, and while this is part of a reasonable backlash, it necessitates further explanation and unpacking.

There is no doubt that the over 500 RIC being commemorated include many Black and Tans and Auxiliaries who were killed during the War of Independence.

For any professional historian, looking at these groups needs to be done in a much more complicated way, rather than simply lumping them under one banner.

The history

The RIC, in existence from the early-19th century (the Irish Constabulary Act of 1836 set it up), was a force of mainly Irishmen, of lower rank and from a mainly Catholic background, while the officer class was from a Protestant background, mirroring the socio-political hierarchies of 19th- and early 20th-century Ireland.

Usually numbering about 10,000 men, the RIC were rigorously trained, although unlike police in Britain, they were armed more like a militia. That arming included truncheons, revolvers, carbines and bayonets.

Obviously, the colonial context in which it operated in Ireland was different to that in which British police operated.

The RIC did the bidding of the State, which included assisting at evictions, putting down the Fenian rebellion, and in Dublin, its urban equivalent – the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) – was much hated for its violent actions against the strikers during the 1913 Lockout.

Despite this, the members of the RIC and DMP were from Ireland, and lived in Irish communities (although not in their communities of origin).

A domesticated police force?

For the most part, members of the RIC performed the everyday task of policing: as inspectors of weights and measures, dealing with petty criminality, inspecting food, controlling alcohol (many stories are told of poitín makers avoiding them), collecting the census, and acting as clerks at petty sessions courts.

As historian DM Leeson says, by 1919, the RIC had become “a thoroughly domesticated, civil police force”.

Indeed, part of the reason that the British government began recruiting the force of men who became the Black and Tans into the RIC, is that the existing RIC was deemed not capable of dealing with the IRA and its tactic of guerrilla warfare.

The Black and Tans were not, as is often claimed, ‘a criminal class’, but were mainly working-class English (about 20% were Irish or of Irish descent), Protestant, demobbed soldiers.

They were not assessed, for physical or psychological suitability, on joining, nor were they given the same rigorous training as the pre-war RIC.

suspects-being-searched-in-dublin-ireland-in-1920-during-the-irish-war-of-independence-aka-anglo-irish-war-from-story-of-twenty-five-years-published-1935 Suspects Being Searched In Dublin in 1920 during the War Of Independence. From the Story Of Twenty Five Years, published 1935. Source: Ken Welsh

The IRA used some as double agents

There is no doubt their reputation for brutality was well deserved.

They carried out the British authorities’ policy of reprisal with unfortunate and brutal gusto, burning, beating and killing their way across the country.

There is also very strong evidence that some of the existing RIC joined in these reprisals, not as a duty they were loath to do, but with the same brutality.

However, the history gets complicated here.

Large numbers of the RIC had been resigning from the force from 1916 onwards, many in opposition to the policies of policing followed by the State they served.

Others who remained were conflicted about their duties, and quite a number served as double agents for the IRA.

One example of resistance comes from Listowel, Co Kerry, where RIC Constable Jeremiah Mee refused, in June 1920, to hand over the barracks there to the British Army.

When the divisional commissioner for Munster, Lt-Col G B F Smyth, came to Listowel to talk to them about going on the offensive against the IRA, he misread the atmosphere when he said: “The more you shoot the better I will like you, and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.”

Mee and his comrades refused to obey this directive. Mee resigned in July, and the well-publicised mutiny led to resignations, dismissals and early retirements within the force more generally.

Others in the RIC/DMP, men like Ned Broy (one of Michael Collins’ best known double agents) were invaluable for IRA intelligence.

Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Atrocities 

In saying that, we also cannot understate the involvement of pre-war RIC men in reprisals.

There is no doubt that they participated in atrocities like the burning of Balbriggan, Cork, Ballylongford, or in raids on isolated farmhouses and communities.

They were also involved in violence against women; along with the Black and Tans, they beat, attacked, harassed women and committed acts of sexual violence.

However, so too did the IRA, whose members committed acts of gendered and sexual violence against ‘their own’ girls and women accused of ‘company keeping’ with the RIC or Black and Tans, and against the wives and families of RIC men.

These families lived in the communities and were an easier target than the RIC men who had retreated to barracks.

Commemoration is tricky, but it matters.

This is but a snapshot of the complications of our revolutionary histories.

We faced this in 2016 when many condemned Countess Markievicz as a murderer for shooting an unarmed DMP member (the evidence is she didn’t do it).

One of the first casualties of the Rising was the unarmed DMP member, Constable O’Brien, shot by Irish Citizen Army Commandant Sean Connolly (who was also killed) outside City Hall.

A memorable commemoration of 2016 was at City Hall when the grandnephew of Constable O’Brien and the great grandniece of Sean Connolly both attended and remembered their ancestral dead.

Commemoration is complicated and often driven, not by history, but by contemporary politics.

The memorial of the dead of 1916 (all the dead) wall at Glasnevin was driven more by the improved contemporary relations with Britain, and the Good Friday Agreement, than by the historical reality of the brutal suppression of the Rising.

The avoidance of commemorating the North King Street massacre by the government (it was done by the local history group) was because of a discomfort at the State acknowledging the very brutal attacks on the civilian population by a significant number of the British Forces during Easter Week.

british-troops-guarding-a-wall-which-is-plastered-with-a-sinn-fein-advertisement-during-the-irish-war-of-independence-aka-anglo-irish-war-in-1920-from-twenty-five-yearspublished-1935 British troops guarding a wall which Is plastered with a Sinn Fein advertisement during the Irish War Of Independence, in 1920. Source: Ken Welsh

The fact that many of historians of women have to argue, again and again, about the inclusion of women in the revolutionary narratives, in the roles as combatants, and as victims of gendered and sexual violence, reflects the privileging of male activism, male combatants, and male sacrifice in our mainstream revolutionary narratives.

Exclusion serves to deny us the complicated, messy histories, that we need to analyse and understand.

No easy answer

There is no easy answer to the controversies around this upcoming commemoration.

Personally, and professionally, I believe it has been handled badly.

Including all the ‘RIC’ dead, as in 1916, is a step too far.

The Black and Tans deserved their notorious reputation and including them in this commemoration is a disservice to the many RIC men who were, for a long time, fairly ordinary policemen serving their communities, as well as the many who hated the behaviour of the ‘Tans’, and the many who contributed to the fight for Irish freedom.

It is also a disservice to the many families in Ireland who had ancestors in the RIC, and in the IRA and Cumann na mBan – and there are many.

One solution is to have these commemorations at local or regional level and detach the actions of individual and groups of RIC men from the institutional RIC behaviours and histories.

I would hope the Listowel Mutiny will be commemorated there – there is already a plaque in the local Garda Station (which was the RIC Barracks).

Rathangan, Co Kildare, where Ned Broy was from, will commemorate him.

At Soloheadbeg in January 1919, a sensitive commemoration included the families of the IRA and Cumann na mBan members who carried out the ambush, and the families of the RIC men killed.

This requires a nuanced approach

As we head into the ever more controversial periods of this decade of centenaries, we need to be more nuanced in our responses to controversies.

I can think of several IRA men who did their duties in the revolutionary war and are lauded for that, but who also committed awful, and until now, invisible, acts of violence against women.

How do we commemorate the men who became leaders in the Irish Free State, but betrayed the ideologies of class and gender equality promised in the proclamation?

We need to commemorate these men and women, in all their complexities. History and society deserve that.

However, whatever way we look at it, it certainly promises to be an interesting time, and we can only hope the government takes more care and consideration in its commemorative efforts on into the coming years.

Mary McAuliffe is a historian and lecturer in Gender Studies at UCD.

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