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Critical EngagementIrish Republicanism, Memory Politics and Policing$

Kevin Hearty

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786940476

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781786940476.001.0001

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Irish Republican Memory as Counter-Memory

Irish Republican Memory as Counter-Memory

(p.55) Chapter 2 Irish Republican Memory as Counter-Memory
Critical Engagement

Kevin Hearty

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter critically examines the inter-communal contestation over policing memory. It contextualises this dimension to memory contestation in contemporary Northern Ireland by drawing on theoretical literature on the use of memory in deeply divided societies and on memory politics in transitioning societies. In doing so it establishes how the collective memory of violence, suffering and victimhood can become ‘war by other means’ in post-conflict societies trying to ‘deal with the past’. This chapter uses the Irish republican policing narrative to critique Unionist, state and RUC narratives of policing that have little resonance with the lived on the ground reality in republican communities, thus developing a fuller understanding of the counter-memory function that Irish republican policing memory performs in current debates on the policing legacy in the North of Ireland.

Keywords:   counter-memory, memory politics, meta-conflict, subaltern narratives


The previous chapter established how policing lay at the heart of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Unsurprisingly, the legacy of policing remains contested during post-conflict transition. This is symptomatic of the general fact that all transitioning societies witness contestation between parties to the conflict who are determined to broadcast their own narrative. More specifically, it reflects how views of policing in the North of Ireland were/are inextricably linked to differing political perspectives. During the conflict, this was played out through the ‘legitimacy politics’ of police and state legitimacy, but in transition contestation – between even if not within opposing ethno-nationalist blocs – is played out through the memory politics of what policing was, rather than what policing is.1 The memory politics of policing gravitate around competing narratives that are either favourable to or condemnatory of the RUC. These narratives are hardly apolitical; they are engineered through deliberately selective ‘forgetting’ and ‘remembering’, articulated with present political needs in mind and endowed with post-conflict political functionality. To grasp the veracity of this, it is necessary to evaluate the interplay between ‘narrative substance’ – what the narrative says – and ‘narrative context’ – why it says this – that defines memory politics in Northern Ireland.

Substantively, opposing narratives articulate the ‘remembered past’ rather than the ‘actual past’. Unlike the ‘actual past’, which is susceptible to natural processes of forgetting, the ‘remembered past’ is manipulated through selective ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’ processes that feed into collective memory, political identity and group boundaries. As such, the ‘remembered past’ is integral to engendering feelings of injustice, a sense of victimisation and the (p.56) apportioning of blame to the ‘other’.2 The ‘remembered past’ can then be used to apportion blame in accordance with the thrust of master narratives proffered by various parties to the conflict; Unionists can blame Irish republicans (and to a lesser extent Nationalists) for attempting to overthrow the state by subterfuge through the NICRA campaign, the British state can blame warring sectarian factions (conveniently excising itself from the post-conflict blame game) and Irish republicans can blame the British for creating the discriminatory ‘Orange state’ before subsequently laying siege to the six counties through military occupation when that state was brought to the point of collapse. Contextually, this is incredibly useful in a transitional setting where an end to the violent manifestations of political disagreement rarely heralds an end to political disagreement itself. Parties formerly locked in physical conflict are unlikely to relinquish their previously held world view and subscribe to that articulated by the ‘other’ simply because physical violence has given way to non-violent politics. Nor are they likely to repudiate their past, even if the means of the past are no longer practised. With the exception, perhaps, of acknowledging certain occasional deviations from the accepted norms of conflict, they will continue to assert the legitimacy of their past actions and the illegitimacy of those of their opponents. In transition, memory politics becomes ‘the continuation of war by other means’.3 Its value is heightened in transitions, like Northern Ireland, that have yet to comprehensively ‘deal with the past’. In the absence of consensus over the past, memory politics underpins the meta-conflict over who caused the conflict and who suffered most because of it. Indeed, the genesis of the meta-conflict lies in the divergent interpretations of its very status; a subversive campaign of Irish republican ‘terrorism’ (Unionists), a sectarian conflict between opposing factions (British state) or a war of national liberation against British occupation (Irish republicans).

Memory politics and the meta-conflict

Contestation over the what, the when, the how and the why of the conflict is directly correlative to contestation over the what, the when, the how and the why of policing. For all that they disagree, opposing narratives similarly reduce the causes and consequences of the conflict to an easily digestible morality play. Common to opposing narratives is a simplistic, yet emotional, tale of ‘good versus evil’. Each narrative is resplendent with victims of violence (p.57) and of the heroics of those who fearlessly defended the community from an omnipresent evil. The major divergence, though, is that while sharing the same ‘good versus evil’ plot, opposing narratives cast different actors in the roles of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Commensurability with easily digestible morality plays and binary caricatures of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ lies not in their absolute truth, but in the fact that these correspond to differing lived experiences of political violence.4 The RUC, then, can simultaneously be seen as the heroic, much suffering ‘good’ character in the Unionist morality play and the violent, sectarian ‘evil’ character in the Irish republican morality play. Uncoincidentally, the British state morality play is broadly analogous to that of Unionists. As the self-proclaimed neutral arbitrator of the conflict, it constructs a morality play where the RUC, supported by their colleagues in the British Army, upheld the ‘good’ inherent in the democratic rule of law by combating the ‘evil’ of ‘terrorism’.5 The common trait is what Assmann calls ‘the memory of perpetrators’ whereby ‘as easy as it is to remember the guilt of others, it is difficult to remember one’s own guilt’.6 Meta-conflict memory politics therefore ‘remembers’ the violence of the conflict in accordance with morality play interpretations of the past; we ‘remember’ the violence of ‘them’ and ‘forget’ the violence of ‘us’.

The fallout from violence exercised by the RUC and that directed against it can be easily situated in communal narratives on the conflict; for the Unionist community from which the RUC was drawn there is a predilection for viewing the RUC as a victim, and for the Nationalist community subjected to the violent manifestations of public order and counter-insurgency policing, there is a tendency to see the force as a perpetrator. The dynamic that more generally underpins narratives on in-group and out-group violence in post-conflict societies enjoys increased traction in contestation over the policing legacy. Using the co-constitutive processes of ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’, these narratives pre-determine that ‘our’ past transgressions are overlooked but ‘our’ suffering, endurance and dead are ‘remembered’.7 Admittedly, this is not unique to Northern Ireland; it is evident in Turkish narratives on the Armenian genocide,8 belated assertions of victimhood among the Argentine right9 and in memory contestation in Bosnia.10 It is not difficult to apply these observations to the substance of opposing policing narratives. Lawther identifies glaring (p.58) silences of RUC wrongdoing, their active role in the conflict and Nationalist victimhood in the Unionist narrative.11 Likewise, it is necessary to acknowledge that the impact political violence had on the RUC and the fact that this was often construed – rightly or wrongly – as sectarian by the Unionist community from which the force was largely recruited, are silenced in the Irish republican policing counter-narrative.12 The British state narrative is defined by the wholesale silencing of security force complicity in the conflict, usefully leveraging support for its neutral referee self-image from the Unionist narrative.

Some illustrative examples may suffice. The protectors of RUC organisational memory promote a narrative of a heavily victimised force that withstood a ‘terrorist onslaught’ for over 30 years in defence of the people of Northern Ireland.13 This narrative accentuates the ‘enormous cost in terms of death and injury’ that the RUC collectively paid during the conflict, rather than their active ‘perpetratorship’ in it.14 Contrast this with the following accounts drawn from interview data:

I don’t think they [the RUC] done themselves any favours. I can honestly say I didn’t shed any tears if I ever heard that, you know, one was blown up or killed and that, and you’d hear on the news, because my own experience of them was that they were bad. Very bad. And, as I said at the start of that question, I never met a good one – never.15

Some people did it [joined the RUC] for the financial benefit, which was great. Also, that hidden hatred of Catholics and a chance to get a good kick into them and a lovely lifestyle. The downside of that was then there was a cost to pay for that, and that was with their lives, and then you had the whole uproar from the Unionist community and stuff, but if a man is putting on a uniform and putting a gun on his hip and getting plenty of money for it … he knows what he’s going out to face, and I can never understand all the crying and whinging about it when it happened.16

Disparity between the accounts is clear. Discernible, however, is a common reliance on the ‘memory of perpetrators’. Moreover, both chime with differential lived experiences and communal conflict narratives.

(p.59) Constructing counter-memory

Irish republican policing memory must be looked at in terms of its role as counter-memory to official discourses on policing. The ‘official’ memory of policing is characterised by the denial of state wrongdoing and the ‘invisibilisation’ of Irish republican victimhood.17 This is attributable to the mnemonic censuring of critics of the RUC18 and to the fact that ‘official’ memory seeks to present an authoritative account of the conflict that silences discordant voices.19 Memory, as Gallagher asserts,20 is ‘activated by contest’. As such, those denied voice and recognition will articulate a counter-memory challenging the exclusion of their experiences from official discourses. Irish republican policing counter-memory therefore counters the silences of ‘official’ memory. What is often pejoratively dismissed as a ‘rewriting’ of the past, may simply be the writing of experiences never acknowledged in ‘official’ memory. This was the view of Sinn Féin’s Jim Gibney, who argued during the debate that republican experiences of policing were ‘an unacknowledged history, ignored in the main and dismissed by those who knew and remained silent’.21 The debate on policing therefore provided an important platform for Irish republicans to broadcast their (counter)memories of policing. The fact that the debate was taking place at every conceivable level within the homes, social spheres and daily lives of republicans, effectively debarred those who have constructed official discourses from wielding any stranglehold over the mnemonic process. In challenging the very fibre of state, Unionist and RUC narratives, Irish republican policing memory assumed the ‘counter-hegemonic purpose’ that Irish republican conflict narratives have traditionally held.22 It is worth noting, however, that it is not just Irish republicans who feel their experiences have been excluded from official discourse on the past. In the aftermath of the Belfast flags dispute, it has become apparent that working-class loyalists feel their experiences have been underappreciated too.23

Interviewees exhibited an acute awareness of the value of Irish republican memory as counter-memory. One tied its importance to the fact that Unionist narratives continue to misrepresent the past:

(p.60) You’ve these people who are still in denial that there was discrimination went on in this country. They are still in denial that the RUC were a bunch of bastards, to the extent that ‘no, no they were good’ and all this here crap … there’s a lot of denial going on within Unionism, so I don’t expect them to agree with my analysis at all of anything to do with policing.24

Others, however, found alternative value in Irish republican memory as counter-memory. A counter-hegemonic broadcasting of the Irish republican experience became essential to a process of recognising the experience of the ‘other’. Elaborating on the importance of this more generally, one republican stated, ‘there is no agreed narrative about what actually happened here. There’s no agreement about what happened, why it happened’.25 In the absence of this, the interviewee asserted, it was imperative that Irish republicans engaged with former RUC officers not to perpetuate disagreement but to provide them with an alternative insight into the causes and consequences of the conflict. While questioning how far outside the republican community the counter-narrative actually resonated, another republican noted that a post-conflict questioning within Unionism and within policing itself on the role of RUC Special Branch in lethal intelligence wars was emerging. Assessing whether this meant Unionists now accepted the Irish republican counter-narrative, the interviewee concluded:

I would doubt it, you know, but I think what you got was a shift in their sort of simplistic ‘We’re right, the RUC is right, everything done was right’. I think there’s that bit of grey area now for a lot of Unionists who you know in the past might have heard things from republicans and they would have just immediately dismissed and now they wouldn’t be as quick to.26

The same interviewee noted that after ‘good conversations’ with former RUC members, there was a change in their own attitude. Elaborating on how they have come to realise that there was a tradition of ‘policing families’ within Unionism, the interviewee admitted, ‘it was a step for me at one time to accept that not everybody in the RUC was there to smash Fenian skulls’. Similarly, another interviewee noted that after an initially fractious first encounter with former RUC personnel they had come to a mutual position of being ‘willing to listen’. This exchange left the interviewee ‘surprised by some of the stuff they (p.61) were coming off with. How they felt let down, and how they felt sort of sold down the Suwannee and all the rest’.27

Notwithstanding incipient recognition of the ‘other’, the extended republican debate on policing became an arena of memory politics in which Irish republicans could attest to their past experiences and challenge prevailing state and Unionist policing narratives. This chapter now engages in a critique of Unionist, state and RUC narratives through the lens of Irish republican counter-memory. This is not to suggest, misleadingly, that the Irish republican policing narrative itself is not afflicted by its own particular silences. As a conflict narrative, it is as selectively constructed by ‘the memory of perpetrators’ as the narratives it seeks to counter. Unionists and former RUC officers are unlikely to identify with it. However, in accepting this, it must also be recognised that it is legitimate for Irish republicans to articulate their own conflict experiences and it is also legitimate to use these experiences to critique dominant narratives.28

The Unionist narrative

The Unionist policing narrative cannot be divorced from the relationship Unionists had with the Northern Ireland state and the RUC. As the dominant group in a state that operated a divided society model of policing, Unionists had a natural affinity with the criminal justice system and the police force perceived to be the protectors of their material advantage. Such is the strength of this historical relationship that Ellison and Martin refer to Unionists and the RUC enjoying ‘a shared history’.29 Many of the narrative planks in the Unionist narrative can also be found in the narrative proffered by the guardians of RUC organisational memory, like the RUC George Cross Foundation (RUC GC) and the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association (NIRPOA).30 Both have core notions of ‘policing by consent’, selfless sacrifice by RUC officers and the rejection of moral equivalence between ‘those who set out on a daily basis to save life and those who set out on a daily basis to take it’.31

As a consequence, the Unionist narrative has been built on a central plank of pre-conflict ‘policing by consent’ in an ideal pre-conflict state, sustained by (p.62) the erroneous supposition that policing problems emerged only in response to Irish republican violence. This portrayal of a pre-conflict ‘golden age’ is symptomatic of a general tendency among formerly privileged groups to idealise the pre-conflict past. In South Africa, for example, problems with white supremacy may have been brought into sharp focus with the introduction of apartheid in 1948 but they long preceded this.32 In Rwanda, the post-genocide discourse of harmonious living between Tutsis and Hutus prior to the genocide of the 1990s has selectively ‘forgotten’ episodes of genocide in previous decades.33 In the North of Ireland, a narrative of the 1960s being a period of cross-community tranquillity is ‘rather superficial’ given the tension that surrounded the 50th anniversaries of the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising, the Divis Street riots of 1964, mobilisation by Paisleyites and the reformation of the UVF in 1966.34 The Unionist narrative therefore views the pre-conflict state through ‘rose-tinted spectacles’.35 What gets lost in adopting such a lens, is the historical context of divided-society policing. Rather than latently becoming an issue in 1969, policing was integral to the polarisation of society in the North of Ireland from the foundation of the state. It was a key issue in dividing society along ethno-nationalist lines rather than belatedly coming to reflect this division once events turned violent. The ability to exert such a divisive influence is derived from the fact that where divided-society policing is practised the issue is not just what the police do but what they represent.36

Police legitimacy and state legitimacy

What is more pertinent than acknowledging that these observations apply to pre-conflict Northern Ireland, is establishing why they apply. There must be some reason why Nationalists could not view the RUC in the same favourable light as Unionists. The only explanation otherwise would be that Nationalists were simply antagonistic to notions of law and order – a claim without foundation that is impossible to substantiate. Rather than being a product of innate antagonism towards law and order, the differential relationship arises from the alienation caused by exclusivist state structures.37 Their fractious relationship with the state conditioned their relationship with the police force upholding the state. As outlined in the preceding chapter, (p.63) from the foundation of the Northern Ireland state the Nationalist minority found themselves occupying a precarious position in a state dominated by the ethno-nationalist ‘other’. The exclusion inherent in state structures meant that the minority community withdrew from Unionist dominated state life rather than integrating themselves into it. The cumulative effect of this was that the minority community felt merely ‘resident in the territory which Northern Protestants had marked out as their own’.38 If one cannot identify with the state, it is only logical that one will not identify with the police force upholding that state. If the state is perceived purely as a Protestant state for a Protestant people, it is also foreseeable that Protestants will endeavour to take ownership of the police force constituted with protecting that state. Thus, notions of privilege on the one hand and marginalisation on the other determined how different communities interpreted the operation of the state and its policing apparatus. Police legitimacy is ultimately reduced to state legitimacy. What transpires is that ‘the security forces of a state established for Protestants, a state by and large supported by Protestants and by and large not supported by Catholics has utterly different relationships with these two communities’.39

A narrative of pre-conflict ‘policing by consent’ fails to marry with the more general policing reality on the ground in pre-conflict Northern Ireland. Divorced from the Unionist viewpoint, the reality emerges that the RUC only delivered ‘normal’ policing pre-conflict where it was compatible with and coincidental to their key function of suppressing Nationalist dissent and upholding the Unionist state.40 The very raison d’être of the force from its outset was to uphold Unionist rule and suppress any dissent to this. In times of relative peace, the performance of this task may have masqueraded as ‘normal’ policing, but the key underlying function was always the same. Normality operated only in so far as this key function could be carried out in a manner that vaguely resembled ‘normal’ policing. The overt aggression of counter-insurgency policing later seen during the conflict is admittedly absent, but this should not be fallaciously taken as indicative that pre-conflict policing was ‘normal’. As Raimundo and Costa Pinto note, using the example of Salazarist Portugal, policing does not have to be overtly violent to be repressive but can be highly ‘judicialised’ by relying on emergency provisions rather than assassination and torture to silence opponents.41 The misuse of emergency legislation identified in the previous chapter certainly suggests that the pre-conflict Northern Ireland state adopted this modus operandi. The reality of pre-conflict policing, then, is that ‘everyday (p.64) policing was as much, if not more so, directed towards the cultural and social subordination of Nationalists as it was towards the prevention and detection of “normal” crime’.42 Seeking middle ground, Whyte argues that the ‘fairest summary’ of policing in the Northern Ireland state is that it ‘teeter[ed] uncertainly between impartiality and partisanship’. While he certainly tempers the seriousness of claims about the Northern Ireland state, he also recognises that aspects of policing were problematic because it failed to apply the law evenly to ‘unionist and anti-unionist alike’.43 Unionists were exempt from the adverse effects of this two-tiered policing, thus a narrative of pre-conflict ‘policing by consent’ chimes with their lived experience. For the minority community, however, the pre-conflict state of play involved being policed by the ‘other’.

The veracity of such observations can be found in strong interviewee assertions that policing was always far removed from ‘normal’ policing. One interviewee, who rather unusually had a neighbour in the RUC, recalled that ‘you were always very aware even as a child that the policemen were something different from us … they weren’t to be trusted, they weren’t our people’.44 Another revealed the flaws in the Unionist narrative by noting that even though they had no personal reason to feel detached from pre-conflict policing they nonetheless ‘would’ve had a concept they [the RUC] were not Dixon of Dock Green’. Conceding that ‘I didn’t have any personal run-ins with the RUC prior to the conflict’, the interviewee was nevertheless ‘aware of what they represented’ and endeavoured to ‘stay as far away as possible’.45 This sentiment was corroborated by another republican who opined:

I do remember policemen in the past and in the 1960s when I would have been a teenager, policemen in [area]. They were not necessarily dangerous or brutal. We knew them and they were about, but there was always a clear understanding that despite how affable they might be on the surface, that their primary responsibility was maintaining the state, and the state to me was a deeply flawed state. It was discriminatory against me and the community I come from and the police were there to uphold the legislation that was discriminatory. So that’s the way I looked at policing then.46

Irish republican counter-memory, as articulated above, evidences how those who were the policed in the pre-conflict state and those who policed the (p.65) pre-conflict state have markedly different narratives. Interviewees – the policed – used their identity as the ‘other’ in a discriminatory state to explain their attitudes to pre-conflict policing. The exclusivity bred by structural discrimination thus seeped into their understanding of policing from an early age. Policing pre-1969 seemed premised less on the notion of normalised consent and more on a subconscious understanding that it entailed whatever degree of coercion necessary to maintain the status quo of Unionist privilege and Nationalist marginalisation.

‘Tasks of a paramilitary nature’

A further challenge to the Unionist ‘policing by consent’ narrative is the fact that in Northern Ireland policing was always in a semi-permanent counter-insurgency mode. This is completely irreconcilable with the notion of ‘normal’ policing. The RUC was equipped with ‘emergency’ legislation to enforce internal security of the state long before 1969. If Unionist policing memory does not accommodate this fact, the governmental zeitgeist at the time does. The Hunt Report, for example, spoke of ‘the special difficulties’ for policing in Northern Ireland and ‘those tasks of a paramilitary nature which the Royal Ulster Constabulary has shouldered since its inception’.47 That the report felt it necessary to mention such ‘special difficulties’ is itself indicative that pre-conflict policing was not ‘normal’. Moreover, paramilitary policing is anathema to any semblance of ‘normal’ policing. This governmental report very clearly states that the RUC was always engaged in paramilitary policing. If this is taken to be the official governmental line at the time, then the Unionist narrative is contradictory even to this. The reality was that the RUC had at its disposal wide-ranging emergency legislation, a vast array of armoury and an armed part-time militia (the ‘B-Specials’). While Whyte argues labelling Northern Ireland a ‘police state’ is an exaggeration,48 at the same time it is hardly unreasonable to argue that none of this fits with a narrative of ‘policing by consent’. The reality on the ground can be more accurately gauged through one republican’s ‘first real sort of memory’ of policing:

I remember in 1966, believe it or not, there was an Easter parade … it was the 50th anniversary of the [Easter] Rising, but that didn’t mean anything to me. I remember the sight then of all the cops everywhere, carrying (p.66) machine guns, you know they had these Sten guns and that was a fairly sort of intimidating image walking through them to get to the parade.49

Little seems consensual about this type of policing. The presence of heavily armed police officers is by its very nature coercive because it communicates what the cost is of stepping outside the permitted boundaries. This is heightened when the specific context of this memory – a republican commemorative event – is taken into consideration. Of course, it could be argued that this memory is typical of the republican tendency to ‘remember’ the what of pre-conflict policing while ‘forgetting’ the why.50 Such activity could only reinforce, rather than assuage, the Unionist siege mentality identified in the previous chapter.

Perpetuating the myth

How Unionism portrays pre-conflict policing corresponds with their portrayal of a harmonious pre-conflict Northern Ireland being unceremoniously wrecked by Irish republican violence. Ellison and Smyth dismiss this as ‘mythical Eden folklore’, arguing:

The tendency to look back at the two decades between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the civil rights agitation as a period of peace and communal harmony is at variance with the facts. The police managed to keep the simmering discontent of Nationalists under control by a combination of repressive legislation and blanket surveillance, assisted to no little extent by the tactical and strategic ineffectiveness of both the IRA and constitutional Nationalism.51

Rather than simply accepting that the Unionist narrative is premised on a myth, it is important to identify why this myth is perpetuated today.

On one level, the Unionist narrative is reflective of their lived experience in the pre-conflict state; the state was theirs, the RUC was theirs, the writ of law being enforced sustained a hegemony that was theirs. Policing was indubitably ‘policing by consent’ from such a perspective. On a more complex level, attuned to the jostling of meta-conflict memory politics, the reason for perpetuating a narrative inconsistent with fact is patently obvious. Having been the (p.67) group in the ascendancy, any admission by Unionists of the shortcomings of the pre-conflict state is essentially an admission of their own wrongdoing. As Ruane and Todd have noted, even if some Unionists did feel uneasy about certain aspects of the discriminatory state, ‘no Unionist saw good reason to integrate Nationalists into the institutions of the state’.52 If they concede that this was in fact the case, they provide mnemonic ammunition to Irish republicans. Republicans could then point to Unionist recognition of the exclusionary nature of the Northern Ireland state which would effectively vindicate their violent opposition to it. Although the Unionist stance has recently softened a little – for example, a dying Ian Paisley’s concession that discrimination was ‘no way to run a country’ and Mike Nesbitt’s admission that discrimination made Northern Ireland a ‘cold house’ for Catholics53 – they nonetheless maintain that a subversive NICRA campaign or violent IRA campaign were not measured responses to whatever discrimination existed. In making only a minimalist admission of discrimination, Unionism has adroitly avoided giving republicans the advantage in memory politics. It is by virtue of necessity and the demands of meta-conflict memory politics that the narrative persists. There is therefore a favourable juxtaposition of the ‘order’ of pre-conflict Northern Ireland with the ‘disorder’ of the conflict.54 The narrative is unambiguous, even if fallacious; there was order, peace and harmony in Northern Ireland until the IRA plunged the place into disorder, bloodshed and sectarianism. This ‘mythology of a prelapsarian Ulster’ allows Unionists to blame the outbreak of conflict on Nationalist demagogues and the IRA.55 The detached out of focus ‘remembering’ exhibited in this narrative is demonstrative that memory will, much to the cost of historical accuracy, only accommodate the facts that suit it.56 Unionist memories of policing overlook the underlying problems with policing since the inception of the state, shoring up their position on the moral high ground, to buttress them from criticism about state discrimination. This then leaves the blame for the outbreak of conflict and the resulting decades of devastation at the door of (p.68) Irish republicanism. ‘Forgotten’ amidst the clamour for the meta-conflict moral high ground, however, is the fact that policing problems were not a by-product of the conflict but ‘part of the problem’.57

The British state narrative

The British state has perpetuated a ‘two tribes’ narrative that reduces conflict in the six counties to inevitable clashes between opposing sectarian factions. This is characteristic of British state refusal to acknowledge its role in the conflict.58 Such a narrative, as Faligot asserts, distorted events on the ground by ‘projecting the irrational image of a war of religion’ through ‘concealing the real causes and consequences of the Anglo-Irish conflict’.59 In any event, it disguised asymmetries of power. Had the ‘two tribes’ theory any vestige of accuracy – highly questionable at best – it overlooked how one ‘tribe’ was marginalised in the Northern Ireland state, while the other ‘tribe’ dictated social, political and economic matters. If there were indeed ‘two tribes’ battling each other, it was not on an even keel. The role of successive British administrations in creating and subsequently sustaining this inequality is similarly neglected. A ‘two tribes’ misconception could perhaps be rhetorically applied to externally drawn British Army members. However, it could hardly apply to the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) or RUC. After all, these were indigenous forces heavily drawn from one ‘tribe’. The facade of being neutral arbitrators in a supposedly sectarian conflict would be difficult to sustain – especially when ‘Ulsterisation’ gave them the lead counter-insurgency role. Normalisation and criminalisation would solve this propagandistic quandary. Accordingly, the British state narrative proclaimed that the conflict was not a ‘war’ between British and Irish parties, but criminal violence undertaken by opposing sectarian factions that sparked a public emergency to be dealt with professionally by the indigenous RUC supported primarily by the indigenous UDR, with other British Army regiments acting as further backup. Britain used its position as a liberal Western democracy to shield its role in the conflict from international scrutiny, thus allowing the erroneous ‘two tribes’ narrative to prevail internationally.60

(p.69) ‘Ulsterisation’

‘Ulsterisation’ was something of an enigma; narratively it withheld the propagandistic advantage from republicans by reinforcing the ‘two tribes’ narrative but practicably it reified historical hostility towards the RUC by implicating them in contentious counter-insurgency activities. The wisdom of believing that Nationalists would buy into the narrative of a professional and even-handed indigenous police force when reality on the ground saw that same force use counter-insurgency policing disproportionately against them must be questioned. The disconnect between the rhetoric and the practice of the policy generated republican claims that it was enacted to make occupation ‘seem more acceptable’.61 The veracity of this is evident in the following recollection of the RUC’s increased counter-insurgency function:

I suppose the earliest memories were constant raids on the family home by the British Army. Then you seen a sort of change then that raiding parties were being led by the RUC and then really the British Army phased out as such and it was then just pure RUC that were raiding and, believe it or not, found that to be more sectarian, more vicious in its approach. Where the squaddies were coming in and sort of probably creating more damage to the home – not abusing physically or verbally anybody – just coming in and wrecking the home and leaving, where the RUC were more ruthless, more premeditated in what they did.62

Similarly, when reflecting on police primacy, the Sinn Féin motion to the Extraordinary Ard Fheis condemned the RUC as ‘a partisan, Unionist militia which engaged in harassment, torture, assassination, shoot-to-kill and collusion with death squads’.63

Evidently, then, ‘Ulsterisation’ further nurtured an already established view that the RUC was a Unionist force. The reasoning behind the policy was to deny the IRA propagandistic oxygen by using a home-grown force against it. However, the force was not an inherent part of the community per se, only an inherent part of the Unionist community. To the minority community there could only be suspicions of bias. The RUC was, after all, overwhelmingly (p.70) Protestant, yet its victims were overwhelmingly Catholic.64 This may well have been the case before the policy and even prior to the conflict, but ‘Ulsterisation’ fuelled rather than ameliorated matters. If RUC conduct towards the NICRA led Nationalists to feel that ‘the police were their enemy’,65 then surely the more robust targeting of Nationalist areas as a result of ‘Ulsterisation’ could only have a similar effect. The salience of this is magnified by O’Dochartaigh’s concession that the RUC ‘did not treat these two communities equally – whether it be equally harshly or equally gently’.66 ‘Vicarious punishment’ of the entire Nationalist community in response to IRA and INLA activity produced a disproportionate counter-insurgency impact on that community.67 As the community at the rough end of this, it was merely natural that Nationalists would develop antipathy towards the RUC. Hostility to the RUC was not a result of ‘bias or hatred’ but ‘bitter experience of the RUC’s brutality and sectarianism’.68 Of course, one could argue that Irish republicans posed the greatest threat to the state and security forces, thus counter-insurgency policing would be foreseeably calibrated to reflect this.69

Notwithstanding this, ‘Ulsterisation’ was clearly problematic in the ‘divided society’ environment of the North of Ireland. Having failed to coerce republicans into subscribing to state normalisation and criminalisation narratives, the policy simply hardened their resolve towards the RUC and widened the gulf between the RUC and Nationalists. Not only was policing seen as highly militarised, it was also seen as highly sectarian. The impact that ‘Ulsterisation’ had in instilling such an outlook can be seen in how interviewees ‘remember’ in a way that juxtaposes their own lived experience of the policy with that of their Unionist neighbours. One interviewee who grew up in a predominantly Unionist town, alluding to their familial experiences, said:

We would have experienced harassment by the likes of the UDR, the RUC quite regularly … the impression the police gave us verbally and by their behaviour was that they were most certainly a Unionist force to protect the Unionist people. They weren’t in the business of protecting people like ourselves.70

(p.71) Another spoke of being singled out for ‘special treatment’ at road blocks. This ‘special treatment’ was reserved solely for Nationalists and was not foisted upon the local Unionist population from which the security forces were drawn.71

These memories challenge the ‘Ulsterisation’ portrayal of the RUC as an even-handed indigenous police force. The policy failed to gain any meaningful contemporaneous traction. Little has changed in the intervening years. Irish republicans today – including those who have embraced police reform and had meaningful engagements with ex-RUC personnel on the past – continue to ‘remember’ the RUC as a Unionist counter-insurgency police force rather than an impartial normalised police service.


Normalisation depicted the RUC’s counter-insurgency function as a simple extension of its professional job fighting ‘normal’ crime. Unlike other combatants, where loyalists died in defence of Ulster against republican attack and republicans died waging a war of national liberation against occupational forces, slain RUC personnel were normal police officers having died for the entire community. Their blood was shed not in waging war on the ‘other’, but in an attempt to keep peace, restore normality and prevent civil war.72 Were it not for the force diligently discharging its duties the North of Ireland would seemingly have descended into ‘an abyss of the kind seen in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo’.73 The force represented ‘the thin green line standing between bloody anarchy and the rule of law’.74 Apparently, then, the only thing distinguishing them from other police forces was the environment of heightened danger they had to function within – circumstances that were ‘very difficult’ incurring ‘considerable sacrifice’.75 The cumulative effect of this was a morality play portrayal of the RUC as the quintessential ‘good guys’ fighting against the evil ‘terrorist’ on both sides of the political divide. Even if some Unionists have deviated slightly from the normalisation script by acknowledging that some aspects of policing were abnormal, as Lawther highlights,76 they have continued portraying it as a necessary response to republican violence.

(p.72) The shortcomings of this narrative are obvious. Primarily, it relates a past that is depoliticised and ahistorical; it outlines the RUC’s historical role in tackling crime and in upholding security of the state and it acknowledges the losses of its members but it offers no contextualisation of why they were killed or why the force had to assume a dual policing role.77 Like the ‘Ulsterisation’ narrative, this hinges on the dissonance between the policy in terms of narrative and application on the ground:

The intent behind this [normalisation] at least as far as the use of the RUC was concerned, was to create an image of normality on the ground. The theory was that a uniformed policeman was much less likely to attract as much attention or to provoke a hostile reaction as a fully equipped soldier. No steps were taken, however, to disarm them or put them back on beat patrol instead of patrolling in the military type Land Rover.78

Furthermore, while the underlying intention of the policy was to give the impression of normality, what were apparently ‘ordinary crimes’ were dealt with through the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act rather than through ‘normal’ legislation.79 Although the normalisation narrative serves the memory politics needs of the state, it also discards certain rudimentary truths about conflict policing more generally. Most notably, there is a lack of recognition that ‘in most, if not all, war-torn societies (from intra-state conflicts) the police were prior to and/or during the conflict period, politically biased, militarised, corrupt, ethnically (or group) divided, disrespectful of human rights and inefficient at ensuring the security of all citizens’.80 There is similar non-recognition that police forces become active participants in – or at the very least contributors to – internal conflict through spying, torture and the use of proxy death squads.81 To assert that the RUC was somehow an aberration is either naivety or mnemonic cherry-picking. The voluminous criticism of the force from human rights groups outside the republican community demonstrates as much.82 Although criticism from within republican communities was dismissed as propaganda,83 external criticism was (p.73) more problematic. It eventually birthed a ‘bad apple’ narrative whereby the transgressions of a few officers should not undermine the integrity and sacrifice of the RUC as a whole.84

Favourable narratives highlighting the RUC’s human cost thrive on the ‘memory of perpetrators’. Whilst the RUC did indeed shoulder considerable death and misery from IRA and INLA violence – something admittedly silenced by the ‘memory of perpetrators’ in the Irish republican counter-narrative – it similarly inflicted much death and misery too. Not only were they implicated in conflict-related death but they were also responsible for other less obvious harms like systematic harassment of target groups at vehicle check points and through ‘stop and search’ operations. Ellison maintains that ‘although the RUC did not cause the conflict that emerged in the late 1960s it was nevertheless a key factor in prolonging it’.85 This is a compelling assertion that completely undermines the state normalisation narrative. The basis for this argument is that ‘the RUC itself could be a catalyst for conflict’.86 Indeed, when one considers the lived experience of the RUC reflected in Irish republican policing counter-memory it is difficult to reach a conclusion that differs from Ellison. The logic of this, then, is that it appears misguided to argue that a force that contributes to, periodically aggravates and in some cases prolongs the conflict is in any guise a ‘normal’ police force. To all intents and purposes, the most rational conclusion to make is that any such police force is an active party to the conflict whether official discourse concedes this or not.

Inasmuch as the ‘memory of perpetrators’ can be a silencing tactic from the pro-state perspective, it can also be a counter-memory tactic frontloading RUC wrongdoing from a victim-centric Irish republican perspective. Commentary during the policing debate highlighted how ‘the history of policing in Ireland is one of oppression and tyranny … it is a record of police forces rather than police services’.87 Gerry Adams refuted the normalisation narrative in his opening remarks to the Extraordinary Ard Fheis, arguing that ‘we who live in the North have never had proper policing. The old RUC and all of its associated militia served the Union, upheld the Orange state and repressed everyone else’.88 Likewise, interview data reflected how the ‘suspect community’ at the (p.74) sharp edge of RUC counter-insurgency ‘remember’ experiences of policing as far removed from ‘normal’ policing as is imaginable. One interviewee from an area that bore the brunt of ‘suspect community’ policing remembered feeling that:

It was very much a ‘them and us’, and I suppose looking back on it it’s easy to understand as far as they were concerned: everybody, no matter what age you were, was the enemy and they expressed that at every opportunity … they definitely were not a police service in [area]. They were a police force who were, if you like, sent in to put manners on the people of [area].89

Another recalled growing up in a different republican district, where the consensus was:

While there was this mistrust towards policing it wasn’t about policing per se, it was about the RUC. It was about the political nature and existence of that body and what that body represented … I always remember growing up that it wasn’t a lawless society. People did need policing but recognised that the RUC wasn’t it. So republicans that I grew up with and republicans in my family in particular weren’t against policing. They were against the RUC.90

In a further snapshot of this reality on the ground, one interviewee summarised their experiences of policing as being either ‘negative’ or ‘huge periods of nothing because to me for a lot of my life the police when it came to protection and the rule of law were irrelevant’.91 These autobiographical narratives no doubt reflect lived reality from the perspective of these individual interviewees. However, on the collective level, there is a silence in relation to how some moderate, usually middle-class, Nationalists did engage with the RUC on matters of ‘normal’ crime.92 This could be reflective of differential experience of the application of normalisation on the ground. In ‘mixed’ middle-class neighbourhoods, where conflict-related activity was minimal, counter-insurgency policing easily passed under the guise of ‘normal’ policing.93 In predominantly (p.75) republican working-class areas it did not. Even though the state was trying to roll out normality and police primacy, the RUC still relied on military backup when patrolling republican districts. These communities became a clearly defined ‘target group’ for militarised ‘over-policing’.94 For those unfortunate enough to fall within this ‘suspect community’ population, everyday policing was experienced through a system predicated on ‘policing people’ rather than ‘policing crime’.95

Unsurprisingly, republicans at the time did not buy into the normalisation narrative. Retrospective post-conflict reflection has not changed this. Interviewees related a plethora of negative ‘suspect community’ policing memories yet no positive memories of ‘normal’ policing. The overwhelming effect of the RUC’s counter-insurgency role, as gleaned from the memories of interviewees, was a clear identification of the force with the British Army. This made the force ‘the enemy’ by precluding any distinction between their counter-insurgency role and their ‘normal’ policing function:

My experience with the RUC was they were flown in from other areas to fortified barracks. Their function or their role within [area] was very much a counter-insurgency role … like most of the Nationalists and republicans I’d say … they were a militia but they certainly weren’t what we would see in a normal democratic society as a police force … they would have been people from Unionist backgrounds, Unionist areas coming into a strongly republican/Nationalist area … they came in armed, they were trained and they were financed by Britain to play a particular role and that’s what they did.96

The recurrence of such a world view throughout the interview process shows that it transcended temporal and geographical barriers, which suggests this was the collective Irish republican policing experience. Irish republican policing counter-memory can be usefully viewed through Kalmanowiecki’s argument that counter-insurgency policing blurs the distinction between the military and the police because both become tasked with protecting the state from internal and external threat. Rather than viewing the two institutions as separate they should instead be viewed along ‘a continuum from military to police’.97 The overwhelming identification of the RUC with the military and the centrality of (p.76) its counter-insurgency function in Irish republican policing counter-memory offer empirical sustenance to the continuum model.

Irish republican policing counter-memory, fashioned by the ‘memory of perpetrators’, is wholly irreconcilable with the state normalisation narrative. Articulated by those at the rough edge of conflict-style policing, it is constructed and sustained by feelings of victimisation and vulnerability. As such, it has adopted narratives put forward by human rights groups outside the constituency. Although such a blatant assertion is not explicitly made in the counter-narrative itself, the memories proffered by interviewees and the narrative gleaned from archival sources exhibit considerable correlation with concerns about collusion, misuse of ‘emergency’ provisions and police brutality previously raised by human rights groups. As a consequence, human rights groups have rather misguidedly been accused of peddling a republican agenda.98 This victimhood is precisely what is silenced in the state narrative. The British state, for its part, has a vested interest in failing to recognise republican victimhood. Were it to accept the reality of the ‘suspect community’ policing it fostered, it would effectively entangle itself in a web of systematic human rights abuse. Instead, it continues to push the demonstrably false line that it was a bystander in the conflict, thus conveniently overlooking how their actions and misuse of long-standing ‘emergency’ legislation contributed to, exacerbated and prolonged political violence.99 Britain is not unique in this regard. Indonesia, for example, continues to peddle a similar line in relation to their involvement in the conflict in Timor-Leste.100 This narrative may deny republicans any belated justification for their violence but, as Rolston argues,101 it is somewhat self-contradictory given that subsequent police reform represents implicit acceptance that policing was not ‘normal’ during the conflict.

The RUC narrative

RUC organisational memory regales ‘narratives of public acceptability, political neutrality, impartiality and a primary concern with enforcing ordinary criminal law rather than exceptional security measures’.102 In line with this, it suggests that although it appeared the force had no support within the Nationalist (p.77) community it actually enjoyed considerable ‘behind closed doors support’.103 The absence of an open manifestation of this support was attributed to IRA threats and violence against anyone seen co-operating with the force. This narrative propagated the legitimacy of the force by insulating it from republican accusations of sectarianism. It was a decidedly clever narrative to adopt in the midst of the ‘propaganda war’. Republicans could not, even if they used a reality on the ground suggesting otherwise, definitively disprove this narrative. They could fundamentally question it to the nth degree. They could stretch the fibres of its credibility for sure. But they could not unequivocally disprove it. How does one prove or disprove what happens privately behind closed doors anyway? On the other hand, the RUC could laud even the most negligible applicability as evidence that the narrative was true, thus engineering a sense of legitimacy for itself in the face of visible legitimacy problems in Nationalist communities. It extended beyond mere insulation of the RUC position, however, to effectively cast aspersions about the amount of support the IRA had among working-class Nationalists by questioning whether the IRA were their protectors or tormentors. Two principal methods became apparent: use of official survey data and magnification of displeasure with IRA internal policing. It is worth interrogating these further.

Dissecting hidden support claims

The RUC narrative of cross-community support lacks validation by credible empirical evidence.104 Data from attitudinal surveys specifically designed to dismiss claims of policing bias is its only supportive ‘evidence’.105 The findings of such surveys did indeed suggest that the RUC enjoyed cross-community support at an initial glance, but on further examination their worth becomes questionable. An argument has long persisted that they were cynically manipulated to exaggerate moderate opinion at the expense of accuracy.106 The socio-economic orientation of the surveys often helped produce findings favourable to the RUC. Survey sample pools usually comprised middle-class professionals rather than lower-class manual workers. Given that the former were normally supportive of the cross-community Alliance Party and moderate SDLP while the latter were more sympathetic to republican groups, findings naturally gravitated towards less critical conclusions. Those included in the surveys were middle-class people living in middle-class neighbourhoods (p.78) – essentially those least effected by the conflict and those least effected by counter-insurgency policing. Those at the counter-insurgency policing coalface were effectively debarred from surveys. Surveys essentially became a process of asking those most likely to concur with the government line their thoughts on policing while excluding any possibly dissenting voices. Findings are therefore tainted at best and entirely self-serving at worst, leaving their worth in measuring the accuracy of ‘hidden support’ claims severely diminished.

Similarly, pointing to disquiet about how the IRA internally policed its own community through ‘rough justice’ as evidence of wide-scale intimidation is also problematic. The process was undeniably brutal and no doubt alienated the friends and families of its victims.107 To suggest otherwise is to stretch credulity. Beating and kneecapping those deemed to have transgressed communal norms invited foreseeable claims of intimidation. However, by focusing on the what of internal policing there is a convenient elision of the why. ‘Rough justice’ may have repulsed certain sections of the Nationalist population but at the same time it also appeased the demands of other sections of that community for criminality to be dealt with.108 One can infer from the very existence of these demands that a legitimacy-deficit-induced policing vacuum existed in working-class Nationalist communities. ‘Rough justice’ was a product of the ‘supply/demand’ conundrum this caused. Blackbourn argues that the emergence of the phenomenon is not only indicative of a failure of policing but is symptomatic of the more general failure of the entire criminal justice system to inspire confidence among or support from the Nationalist community.109 The symbiotic relationship between state illegitimacy and IRA legitimacy in the Nationalist psyche naturally invited the IRA to plug this vacuum. Their response to criticism of ‘rough justice’ was that it was not intimidating the community but rather protecting it in the absence of a ‘normal’ police force. This challenged the state normalisation narrative and bolstered their communal defender self-image in the ‘propaganda war’. The IRA would, it asserted, protect the community from the ‘oppression’ of the occupier, the ‘other’ and petty criminals.110 In Ardoyne it thanked the local community for ‘their wholehearted support and assistance’ in enabling them to punish local criminality.111 The argument that ‘rough justice’ was symptomatic of the RUC’s own shortcomings permeated the synopsis of one interviewee who contextualised it as follows:

(p.79) You couldn’t go to a police station and report the theft of your car because they would try and turn you into an informer. So people just went to republicans if there was a house break-in or someone was at anti-social behaviour and that’s what really created that sort of atmosphere, but it was one where you could leave your door open. There was no drugs on the street or knife crime.112

Although this account contextualises internal policing it also idealises the practice. There is little recognition of the human rights abuse that the inarguably brutal process entailed. If the ‘memory of perpetrators’ fails to recognise the violence of ‘us’ on ‘them’, it also neglects the internal policing violence of ‘us’ on ‘us’. ‘Rough justice’ is simultaneously sanitised by republicans to legitimate it but divorced from its context by the RUC in order to reduce it to crude intimidation. The posturing around competing viewpoints on the matter is reflective of how discourses on the practice were intricately linked to competing narratives on normalisation that underpinned the ‘propaganda war’. As such, two dichotomous frameworks for presenting the practice emerged: exaggeration to give any semblance of communal disapproval hyper visibility and minimisation that silenced the adverse impact of the practice at the intra-communal level through legitimacy claims gleaned from a communal demand and/or need.

The ‘hidden support’ narrative is built on an exclusivist premise that completely discounts other factors that may have deterred Nationalists from openly supporting the RUC. Intimidation is presented as the only obstacle to open co-operation.113 Such a narrative, while serving the legitimacy purposes of the RUC, ignores how ‘the strength of Nationalist opposition to the police suggests that while intimidation is a factor … it is not the only and perhaps not the most important factor – it may be more a symptom than a root cause’.114 Perhaps the lack of open support was due (drawing on O’Faolean’s analogous critique of the UDR)115 to the predominantly Protestant membership and ethos of the force, its dubious historical roots and their role in the conflict. Then there is the historical and traditional loathing of informers in Ireland.116 Lack of open support can be equally attributable to some unwritten communal code about not collaborating with the security forces, meaning that historical consciousness and the possibility of wider communal ostracism also prevented (p.80) open support for the RUC. This wider societal stigma led Ryder to concede that republicans ‘rarely needed to resort to threats’.117 That someone as sympathetic to the RUC as Ryder should acknowledge this speaks volumes about the exaggerated claims on which the ‘hidden support’ narrative is premised. There is also the questionable manner in which the RUC sought to secure Nationalist ‘co-operation’. Resorting to blackmailing drink-drivers into informing on republicans is hardly supportive of claims of ‘hidden support’.118 Rather, it seemingly ‘exposes the lack of support Nationalists have for the RUC when they have to arrest Nationalists and intimidate them into gathering low level intelligence on local republicans’.119 Moreover, the ‘hidden support’ narrative completely disregards the adverse effect that ‘over-policing’ had on Nationalist districts. In the ‘see-saw’ relationship the Nationalist community had with the IRA, any digression by the IRA from ‘acceptable’ conduct led to reduced communal support.120 Yet this was also surely the case in relation to attitudes towards the RUC. When the RUC was targeting Nationalist communities via ‘Ulsterisation’ the ‘see-saw’ tipped against the RUC, either towards indifference or towards tacit support for the IRA. With Nationalists having only confrontational experiences of policing, the ‘see-saw’ was more often than not tipped against the RUC. While this did not invariably translate into hardened support for the IRA it did militate against the RUC nonetheless. Republicans could certainly tap into a reservoir of RUC misdeeds to ‘turn’ Nationalists against the RUC via the ‘propaganda war’. Given this, one must question to what extent the IRA even needed to resort to the crude intimidation alleged by the RUC.

Multitudinous factors may have impeded open support for the RUC in Nationalist areas, yet the force continued to counsel that IRA intimidation was the lone determinant. A governmental declaration that ‘the aims of the IRA are to intimidate the population by brutal terrorism and so to prevent any co-operation with the government, the police and the courts of law’ reinforced this.121 That the IRA tried its utmost to prevent the RUC getting a foothold in Nationalist communities is incontestable. That it actively discouraged Nationalist communities from co-operating with the RUC is also incontestable. They were, after all, at war with the RUC and were unlikely to passively tolerate the enemy encroaching on its territory and poaching its wider support base. These efforts undoubtedly involved the exertion of a certain level and type of pressure but hardly by the wholesale, crude intimidation the RUC claimed.

(p.81) Policing ‘hearts and minds’

Historically, the IRA response to informing has been unambiguous – the death sentence. From 1969 to 2001, the IRA shot dead 59 people as alleged informers.122 These included IRA volunteers, republican sympathisers and civilians who had passed on information on IRA activity to the security forces. The policy has featured in all IRA campaigns since the Tan War in the 1920s.123 It was justified by the IRA, both at the time and ever since, as a form of ‘necessary evil’ spawned by the harsh realities of war. To this end, those fraternising with the security forces were advised to desist or be ‘dealt with’.124 But it was not enough, in either the physical war or the ‘propaganda war’, to retrospectively punish this conventional informing through death. The RUC had to be actively ‘othered’ from the Nationalist community on every level to prevent it getting into Nationalist communities to win ‘hearts and minds’. This required a greater effort than simply shooting informers. One aspect of this was a conscious tactic of targeting businesses that served RUC members. Fitting into a wider strategy of economic sabotage, if the IRA were to blow up businesses it would channel its ire towards those engaged in the RUC’s ‘hearts and minds’ games. The intent was clearly to stop the RUC from capitalising on a charm offensive of using local businesses while also inflicting the necessary damage on the local economy so as to make occupation economically unviable – admittedly the wider implications of this strategy have been excised from the Irish republican narrative by the ‘memory of perpetrators’. In Lurgan, for example, the IRA bombed a number of businesses for ‘their refusal to stop serving the security forces’, warning further: ‘your shop could be next – STOP SERVING THE SECURITY FORCES NOW’.125 In Newry, businesses with a ‘policy of collaboration with crown forces’ were issued with a ‘final warning’.126 The campaign continued into the late 1980s, extending to a business that was bombed for placing an advertisement in an RUC magazine.127 In response to the increased militarisation of republican areas following the AIA, the IRA began targeting ‘contractors supplying and maintaining Britain’s war machine’.128 This led some firms to subsequently withdraw their services.129

(p.82) This type of discouragement, however, does not mean that the IRA had its community in a vice-like grip, where the community was too afraid to speak out against the IRA. Open criticism of the IRA from the SDLP, community groups and the Catholic clergy in particular, was part and parcel of everyday internal politicking within the Nationalist community. For example, an open letter from Catholic bishops read to every Catholic congregation in Ireland following the Enniskillen bombing stated that it was ‘sinful to join organisations committed to violence or to remain in them. It is sinful to support such organisations or to call on others to support them’.130 It is difficult to envisage how castigation of the IRA could be any more open or categorical. Certainly, it is difficult to reconcile the many instances of this public criticism with the thrust of the ‘hidden support’ narrative. Rather than demonstrating that the IRA demanded acquiescence via iron-fist tactics, it shows the complex internal ‘hearts and minds’ games that republicans and more moderate elements had become enmeshed in. The IRA was not hesitant in returning derision to its critics. It lambasted the ‘political collaborators, compromisers, beggars and crawlers’ that had aligned with the British to ‘discredit the republican movement’.131 These exchanges are not evidence of intimidation nor could they be conceived to be. Whatever the virulence of the republican retort above, it was ultimately responsive to similar virulence directed at the IRA from its detractors. That republicans chose to engage in such exchanges is symptomatic of the ‘hearts and minds’ game at play within Nationalist communities. This is important for two reasons: first, it shows that there were those prepared to publicly challenge the IRA, and secondly, the fact that this provoked a republican response evidences implicit recognition within the IRA that some within its own community did not support them. This reality is in clear discord with the underlying tenet of the ‘hidden support’ narrative.

The IRA and community support

The ‘hidden support’ narrative is predicated on the assumption that the IRA enjoyed no support given willingly by the Nationalist community. Notwithstanding the fact that some Nationalists clearly opposed the IRA, empirical and documentary evidence is nonetheless indicative that the IRA enjoyed sizeable communal support in certain districts.132 In the ‘propaganda war’ this became a shield against claims of intimidation; the IRA enjoyed a popular support the RUC did not, but this was given not demanded. High levels (p.83) of community support had apparently raised IRA morale to ‘an all-time high’ during testing periods.133 Gerry Adams, in a characteristic defence, classified the IRA as ‘a people’s army’ that was:

Closely knit with the Nationalist community, it was made up of the sons and daughters of ordinary people, its members indistinguishable to any outside observer from the rest of the community. Whether people in the Nationalist areas agreed or disagreed with the IRA and all of its actions they recognised it as their army, knew for the most part which of their neighbours were members, and referred to it as simply the ‘ra’.134

Kevin Bean has previously touched on the relevance of this, noting that ‘given the numbers of people who have passed through the IRA and their wider family and communal links, it would be an unusual family in the nationalist areas that had no links, no matter how tenuous, with the Republican Movement’.135 One former combatant illustrated the centrality of this argument to the Irish republican counter-narrative by arguing that ‘we were respected and admired by the populous’, noting further that ‘bullies are feared but they are never respected’.136 This reflects how the ‘language of community’ was central to republican self-legitimation.137 The IRA, for example, defended its bombing campaign through reference to the popular support afforded to volunteers active on the ground: ‘behind those bombers, is massive structure based on streets and districts, whose existence is dependent upon the active support and mandate of the people’.138 Indeed, private assessments of the calibre, capacity and support for the IRA contained in internal British Army documents failed to match the official position taken during the ‘propaganda war’.139

There is a simple logic to the Irish republican counter-narrative that feeds off the illogicality of suggesting that the IRA only garnered community support through intimidation. How could you possibly intimidate a grassroots support base your survival is reliant upon into giving this necessary support? Sluka characterised the IRA and INLA as ‘community-based’ organisations that relied on popular support for their survival, elaborating further that ‘they

(p.84) cannot maintain that support through intimidation’.140 Far from being a convoluted argument, this assertion is based on a certain level of common sense. Surely the intimidation alleged by the RUC could only prove fatalistic for republicans. It would have turned Nationalists against the IRA and pushed them to co-operate with the RUC. That this did not ostensibly occur calls the ‘hidden support’ narrative further into question. One interviewee used this to argue that the ‘hidden support’ narrative was ‘disingenuous’ because if it was true then the RUC was ‘incompetent’ for failing to capitalise on alleged ill-feeling to defeat the IRA.141 It seems then that the IRA sustained its campaign ‘by dint of its popularity’ rather than crude intimidation.142

The ‘hidden support’ narrative espouses a simplistic ‘black-and-white’ approach to communal support that overlooks existent ‘grey’ areas. The chief flaw in this ‘black-and-white’ thinking is a perplexing insinuation that not supporting the IRA somehow equates with supporting the RUC – if you are not with the IRA you are unfailingly against it and with the RUC. Participant observation in Nationalist districts of Belfast by Burton and Sluka comprehensively dispelled this. Two types of community support were observed: ‘hard’ support from activists and a support network prepared to offer shelter, intelligence and auxiliary support, and a more common ‘soft’ support that was not material or active but empathetic.143 Although the ‘soft’ support base did not actively assist the IRA it did not hinder them either. The IRA no doubt enjoyed considerably more ‘soft’ support than ‘hard’ support, yet the ‘hidden support’ narrative is devoid of recognition that ‘soft’ support even existed. The ebb and flow of ‘soft’ support that defined the ‘see-saw’ relationship between the IRA and Nationalist community was often most noticeable at IRA funerals. The underlying sense of self-sacrifice for a noble cause mobilised Nationalists who may not have been hardened IRA sympathisers yet felt compelled to express solidarity with the deceased – who were also, in many cases, friends, relations and neighbours too. The most notable manifestation of this was during the 1981 hunger strike when funerals attracted up to 100,000 people, not all of whom were ‘hard’ supporters. Referring to the complexity of the IRA relationship with the Nationalist community, O’Malley has previously argued that these funerals revealed:

The complicated nature of the relationship between the IRA and its community, a love–hate relationship that would always resolve itself on the side of love, especially in the matter of death, where the quarrels are always (p.85) internal – almost like family rows – and always misunderstood by outsiders who mistook occasional disapproval for disavowal.144

Even Nationalist critics of republican violence like O’Doherty readily concede that even if people did not support the IRA they did not co-operate with the RUC in relation to what they knew about IRA activity, and that while they frowned upon political violence in general they were acceptant of republican violence towards the RUC.145 In totality then, the IRA may have enjoyed the ‘hard’ support of only a ‘minority within a minority’ in Northern Ireland but they nonetheless garnered more ‘soft’ support within the wider Nationalist community.146 In accepting such an actuality, Danny Morrison asserts that the IRA ‘never claimed to represent the majority of the nationalist community’ but it did claim to represent those in the ‘ghettos’ and ‘poor rural areas’ who supported its armed campaign and subsequently voted for Sinn Féin in the six counties.147


The use of memory in the Irish republican policing debate became integral to transforming the ‘legitimacy politics’ of the conflict into post-conflict memory politics. Narratives selectively constructed during the ‘propaganda war’ were transplanted into the policing legacy where the ‘memory of perpetrators’ holds political currency. Irish republicans used their policing counter-memory to challenge dominant Unionist, state and RUC narratives. It contests notions of ‘normal’ pre-conflict ‘policing by consent’, of the RUC being a neutral force in a sectarian conflict between ‘two tribes’ and of ‘hidden support’ for the RUC among the Nationalist community. As counter-memory, Irish republican policing memory seeks to dispel official narratives that discount their policing experiences from the very inception of the Northern Ireland state. It is in essence the memory of the ‘suspect community’ at the sharp edge of counter-insurgency policing – essentially the policed – and it stands in contrast to the narrative of the police. The acceptance of policing by Sinn Féin has moved the matter from ‘legitimacy politics’ to memory politics at the inter-communal level where contestation is about what policing was rather than what policing is, yet at the intra-communal level policing remains mired in ‘legitimacy politics’. It is to this that the next chapter now turns.


(15) AB, critic of Sinn Féin policy, interview, October 2013.

(16) P, critic of Sinn Féin policy, interview, June 2013.

(21) Jim Gibney, ‘First Step to Accountable Policing is Support’, Irish News, 25 January 2007.

(24) K, critic of Sinn Féin policy, interview, June 2013.

(25) A, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, April 2013.

(26) M, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, June 2013.

(27) G, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, May 2013.

(44) G, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, May 2013.

(45) H, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, May 2013.

(46) Q, critic of Sinn Féin policy, interview, July 2013.

(47) ‘Report of the Advisory Committee on Police in Northern Ireland’ (Hunt Report) (1969), [8–10].

(49) A, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, April 2013.

(53) ‘Ian Paisley Criticised Over Dublin-Monaghan Bombs Comment’, BBC News, 10 January 2014: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-25673999 (accessed 28 September 2015); Gerry Moriarty, ‘Ian Paisley: Power House Unionist Who Eventually Shook Hands with Nationalists’, Irish Times, 31 December 2014: www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/ian-paisley-powerhouse-unionist-who-eventually-shook-hands-with-nationalists-1.2051277 (accessed 7 October 2016).

(54) RUC GC, 2003.

(61) ‘Comment’, Sceal, 8 (7 August 1896).

(62) P, critic of Sinn Féin policy, interview, June 2013.

(63) ‘Motion Passed by Sinn Féin at Extraordinary Ard Fheis on Policing, RDS, Dublin (28 January 2007)’: www.cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/sf/sf280107motion.htm (accessed 24 April 2012).

(70) J, critic of Sinn Féin policy, interview, June 2013.

(71) AB, critic of Sinn Féin policy, interview, October 2013.

(73) ‘Save the RUC’, Daily Telegraph, 28 September 1999.

(74) Lord Tebbit, quoted in G. Jones, ‘Tebbit Launches Bitter Attack on Patten’s Proposals for RUC’, Daily Telegraph, 6 October 1999.

(87) ‘Ógra Shinn Féin National Congress Opposes SF Policing Motion’, Ogra Shinn Féin, 22 January 2007: www.ograshinnfein.blogspot.co.uk/2007/01/gra-shinn-fin-national-congress.html (accessed 24 April 2012).

(88) ‘Opening Address by Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin (SF), to the Sinn Féin Extraordinary Ard Fheis on Policing, RDS, Dublin (28 January 2007)’: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/sf/ga280107a.htm (accessed 10 May 2012).

(89) I, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, May 2013.

(90) B, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, April 2013.

(91) T, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, August 2013.

(96) AD, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, July 2013.

(110) ‘Crime and Punishment’, Strabane Republican, 1972.

(111) ‘Thanks for Support’, Freedom Fighter, 5 (January 1977).

(112) P, critic of Sinn Féin policy, interview, June 2013.

(118) ‘Local Man Reveals RUC Blackmail Attempt’, Sceal, 58 (3 September 1987).

(119) ‘Attempts to Recruit an Informer’, Sceal, 87 (31 March 1988).

(124) ‘Fraternisers Beware’, Armalite, 3 (9 June 1973).

(125) ‘War News’, Volunteer, 19 September 1976.

(126) ‘Final Warning’, Sceal, 81 (18 February 1988).

(127) ‘Collaborators’, Sceal, 28 (15 January 1987).

(128) ‘Sustained Guerrilla Campaign’, Iris, 5 (Easter 1991).

(129) ‘Forkhill Barracks Mortared’, An Phoblacht, 20 November 1986.

(130) Cited in O’Malley, 1990, 253.

(131) ‘Brits Out’, Freedom Fighter, 4 (December 1976).

(133) ‘The Barricades are Down – but the People Have Risen’, Tatler, 25 (1971).

(136) H, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, May 2013.

(138) ‘The Nature of Strategy, Politics, Revolution and British Withdrawal’, Republican News, 27 March 1976.

(139) D. Campbell, ‘The Army’s Secret Opinion’, New Statesman, 13 July 1979.

(141) U, supporter of Sinn Féin policy, interview, August 2013.

(147) Morrison, 2016a. (p.86)