Obituary:Sir Jamie Flanagan

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The Independent Culture
THE CAREER of Jamie Flanagan, the first Ulster Catholic to become head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1973, is a demonstration of the complexity of Northern Irish life; a complexity often obscured by ideologically motivated distortions and unhistorical over-simplifications.

In 1934, the young Flanagan joined the RUC. In 1935, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, boasted of a Protestant parliament for a Protestant state. In such a context, Flanagan's decision to join the Northern Irish police force is difficult to fathom. But placed in a broader context, Flanagan's notion is rather more comprehensible.

Jamie Flanagan's father was a sergeant in the old Royal Irish Constabulary - a force which was by the time of the IRA campaign of 1919 to 1921 almost 80 per cent Catholic. Some of these Catholic policemen who had seen their colleagues cut down by the IRA harboured strongly anti-Republican sentiments, and were happy enough to serve the new Unionist government in Northern Ireland, established in 1921, which was committed at that time to preserving one-third of its places in the police force for Catholics.

The situation was complicated by the fact that Michael Collins, following his well-tried modus operandi in the South, attempted to place spies within the new Royal Ulster Constabulary. Nevertheless, even the strongly Orange Minister of Home Affairs in the Northern Ireland government, R. Dawson Bates, believed that there had to be a strong Catholic presence in the police - he made a point of supporting the promotion of Catholic officers as against the claims of more overtly political (in the Protestant and Unionist sense) candidates.

Denis Donoghue's memoir Warrenpoint (1991) is a testimony to the view that, none the less, Catholic policemen suffered discrimination under the Stormont regime. Flanagan, however, does not seem to have expected this. At the point when he joined the force, 11 out of 19 Head Constables in Belfast were Catholic and Catholic sergeants comprised 40 out of a total of 105; the great difficulty was at constable level, only 86 out of 624 policemen were Catholics, partly an index of the Northern regime's drastically fading commitment to the relatively pluralist ideals of the 1920s; a fading commitment excused by reference to the irredentist and extravagantly Catholic ethos of the Irish state.

Flanagan, none the less, might well have expected to enjoy a speedy rise once he joined the RUC; and this is precisely what happened. In 1939 he was transferred from Downpatrick to Fermanagh and made Sergeant; the same year he married Florence Acheson, a Protestant.

In this era this was regarded as a rapid promotion and the pattern was to be sustained. In 1941 he was appointed Head Constable in Londonderry; in 1942 he became a District Inspector and was transferred to the security control unit which had sensitive wartime responsibilities: at the time there was an upsurge of IRA activity within the city linked with support for Nazi Germany.

In 1945, Flanagan was seconded for duty with the British mission to Greece and he served there until 1952. At this point, he was appointed MBE. He returned to the RUC, working in the celebrated B Division of West Belfast in the late 1950s, at the time of the IRA's least successful campaign; in 1961 he achieved the rank of County Inspector. Flanagan was appointed OBE on the eve of the outbreak of the Troubles in June 1968.

In June 1970, he was appointed Assistant Chief Constable; in July 1973 he was appointed CBE, becoming Chief Constable in November of that year. In June of 1975 Flanagan received a knighthood, retiring a year later in April 1976. Having been targeted by Republicans whilst attending mass, he was forced to retire to England.

Flanagan's period as Chief Constable was a highly controversial one. It coincided with the Ulster workers' strike of 1974 and the Provisional IRA's temporary ceasefire in 1975. Certainly, there were those - and they included senior members of the power-sharing executive which was forced out of office by the strike - who, not without reason, felt that the RUC did not act vigorously enough against the strikers.

It should be recalled, however, that the army, and not the police, enjoyed primacy in security policy in this period. On the other hand, during the ceasefire of 1975, there were those who felt that the RUC was being politically manipulated so that it would go easy on the IRA.

Flanagan was never entirely comfortable in these treacherous waters. He was most definitely not a "political" policeman. A spruce, well-groomed, outgoing and approachable man, with vigorous powers of expression - both in voice and on paper - he preferred to confine himself to matters of policing; he was always, in particular, highly sensitive to the morale of the men in a force which was to lose 299 members in the course of the Troubles. Flanagan's exceptional humanity was always evident in his treatment of grieving families - for whom he did much in a practical, as well as emotional, sense.

Jamie Flanagan avoided political comment, but he did feel that some in the hierarchy of his own church displayed a certain coolness towards him.

Paul Bew

James Bernard Flanagan, police officer: born 15 January 1914; MBE 1952, OBE 1968, CBE 1973; County Inspector, RUC 1961-70, Assistant Chief Constable 1970-73, Chief Constable 1973-76; Kt 1975; married 1938 Florence Acheson (two sons, one daughter); died 4 April 1999.