Sir John Hermon: Chief Constable of the RUC during the most turbulent period of the Troubles

As the longest-serving Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Sir John Hermon had a hugely eventful police career which placed him at the heart of security in Northern Ireland during the tempestuous 1980s.

Today there is no IRA, the organisation having become inactive, and no RUC, the peace process having produced far-reaching reforms which have seen it replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The policing world has thus changed beyond recognition since the 1980s when Sir John – always called Jack – was embroiled in a fierce conflict with both the IRA and loyalist terrorists.

Healso found himself often locked in combat with politicians, for in a deeply divided community there was no semblance of consensus on policing. He was viewed by many as too tough and by others as too soft; many commended him as independent, others regarded him as imperious.

For many years he was dogged by the so-called shoot-to-kill affair, when specially trained squads of police ambushed and killed republican suspects.

He trenchantly defended his men, but felt “deep anger and frustration” about those he felt should have been more supportive.

Hedid not defeat the IRA, his greatest enemy, but he took pride in having helped ensure that neither republican nor loyalist violence prevailed. “I believe I held the line,” he wrote proudly as the last line in his autobiography.

Hewas born into a rural Protestant family at Islandmagee, County Antrim. By his ownaccount his father was a “despotic and intemperate” man whose heavy drinking and outbursts of temper broke up his marriage.

He attended grammar school and after a brief and less than happy period as a trainee accountant joined the RUC. He instantly blossomed. His intelligence and abilities soon came to the notice of his superiors in a force which in those days was only 3,000- strong.

When an officer, Sergeant Ovens, was killed by an IRA boobytrap in Coalisland, County Tyrone in 1957 Hermon was detailed to replace him as the local station sergeant. He was regarded as having applied a steady hand in a difficult and dangerous post.

Hewas known as a professional officer who was something of a disciplinarian – one of his nicknames was “Hermon the German.” But he also admitted that he would on occasion resort to the traditional police method of dealing with miscreants through a cuff on the ear. He related ending one minor disturbance by dealing a man who persisted in arguing with him “a short sharp clip with my torch to his lower cheek and chin.” The man, the senior republican Kevin Mallon, was later acquitted of murdering Sergeant Ovens.

Hermon did not spare the men under him. In his memoirs, Holding the Line, he recalled fining a constable 10 shillings for borrowing a fishing rod while on duty. “I took a very dim view of signs of apathy or slacking on the job,” he noted sternly.

Hewas clearly an officer on the way up. Promotions came his way and more recognition followed in 1962 when he became the first RUC officer to attend the Police Staff College at Bramshill in England. He later took charge of RUC training.

When the Catholic civil rights movements took to the streets singing “We shall overcome,” the largely Protestant RUC was regarded as having disgraced itself when officers were televised energetically wielding batons against non-violent protesters. When Harold Wilson’s government responded with a sweeping programme of police reform Hermon embraced this wholeheartedly. Many senior officers were henceforth regarded in London as incompetent or anti-Catholic and found their promotion blocked.

He, however, quickly became identified not just as a talented policeman but as one of a non-sectarian newer breed. He readily accepted that farreaching reforms were essential, and was prepared to make his stance known.

From then on he was in favour with successive governments and promotioncameregularly, so that for years it was accepted he was destined to become Chief Constable. Even before getting the top job he was influential in formulating a new policy, sometimes called “Ulsterisation” and sometimes “police primacy”, which sought to reduce the army’s role and put the RUC in control of security policy.

In the late 1970s he was seconded to Scotland Yard for a year. This meant he missed most of the heated controversy over the alleged ill-treatment of suspects at Castlereagh interrogation centre. It was therefore with a comparatively clean record that he took over from Sir Kenneth Newman in 1980.

His nine years as Chief Constable were studded with incident, controversy and above all with violence. Nine hundred deaths took place during that period: for much of it there was a political vacuum which meant that much attention focussed on security policy, and therefore on Hermon.

The procession of major events of the 1980s was relentless. The decade opened with republican hunger strikes and went on to witness both a constant stream of individual killings and attacks which caused multiple casualties. A litany of these illustrates that these were some of the darkest days of the troubles: the Brighton bombing, the Enniskillen attack, Loughgall, the machine-gunning of Catholic bars by loyalists, the Gibraltar shootings – the list today seems interminable.

Hermon’s RUC itself suffered well over 100 fatalities in the time he was at the helm. This meant he had the task, which he came to dread, of visiting bereaved families and attending funerals.

Hewas particularly affected by an IRA mortar attack on a police station in the County Down town of Newry which killed nine of his officers, includ ing two policewomen. It was the biggest single loss of life ever sustained by the RUC.

He recalled in his memoirs: “The multiple murder had a lasting effect on me. Photographs of the nine dead officers later appeared in the Police Review magazine and looking at their faces, pictured together on one page, disturbed me greatly. Nevertheless, I kept the magazine open in a drawer of my office desk until the day I retired. It still lies open at the same page in my study at home.” He wrote that in 1997, 12 years after the event.

The severity of the pressures on RUC morale were illustrated the following year when three more policemen were killed in the same town. At an emotional meeting RUC officers refused to go back on to the streets without military protection. One is said to have told the meeting: “It doesn’t matter what the Chief Constable does to us – he can’t kill us. If we go back out there we’re going to get killed.”

The authorities’ response to repub lican violence led to the setting up of a specialised police unit, trained in “speed, firepower and aggression,” which shot and killed six republicans.

Following protests from civil liberties groups and others the Manchester policeman John Stalker was appointed to conduct an investigation which led to a long-running saga during which Stalker was mysteriously removed from the case.

The Stalker affair overshadowed much of the Hermon era. It began in 1982, rumbled on through court cases and media revelations and flared again in 1988-89 with an official decision not to prosecute RUC wrongdoers for reasons of state security. Hermon trenchantly defended his actions and his men, but he grew increasingly resentful and bitter at what he saw as a lack of support.

His first wife, Jean, died of cancer in 1986, but an unexpected second marriage followed. He made a telephone call to a law lecturer, Sylvia Paisley, who had written an article criticising him for discriminating against women in the RUC. When he rang her she assumed he was a hoaxer, responding: “If you’re the Chief Constable, I’m Brigitte Bardot.”

She later became his second wife, and they had two children together. Today, as Lady Sylvia Hermon, she is the Ulster Unionist MP for North Down.

She once told the Commons that he had been the bogeyman when she grew up near Coalisland. She said: “I remember that the threat of seeing the sergeant was the ultimate deterrent to bad behaviour in our house. The fierce sergeant was none other than Jack Hermon.”

His force, meanwhile, came under intense pressure not from republicans but from loyalists, when officers were systematically attacked by extreme loyalists objecting to the 1985 Anglo- Irish Agreement between London and Dublin. Around 550 police homes were targeted, often with petrolbombs, and 140 police families had to move house.

The authorities were greatly appreciative of the fact that Hermon had held the line against such intimidation.

They were, however, much less appreciative when he bridled against proposals designed to make the RUC more acceptable to nationalists.

This was, he said, political interference.

It was an ironic stance for him, given that earlier in his career he had so enthusiastically embraced change within the force, as proposed by the government. But now he stoutly maintained that he had a duty to maintain the RUC’s independence in the face of what he later termed “political direction at its most blatant.”

Not all “government meddling” was unwelcome to him, however. Hermon recalled that once, over tea with Margaret Thatcher, he had asked for an additional 500 officers. According to him she instantly summoned a Cabinet minister and instructed him: “The Chief Constable needs 500 officers. See that he gets them.”

By this stage he was one of the most powerful figures in Northern Ireland.

But he had also over the years generated much friction. He skirmished at various times with the army, with governments and police in the Irish Republic, the local police authority, his force’s trade union and many political figures. He may have come to regard himself as irreplaceable, for when someone in authority had a quiet word with him and discreetly asked him to plan for his retirement he was shocked – “I was being done a gross injustice,” he recalled.

His last years were marred by what his family described as “a long and valiant struggle against the ravages of Alzheimer’s.”

David McKittrick John Hermon, policeman: born Islandmagee, Co Antrim 23 November 1928; Chief Constable, Royal Ulster Constabulary 1980-89; Kt 1982; married 1954 Jean Webb (deceased, one son, one daughter), married 1988 Sylvia Paisley (two sons); died 6 November 2008.

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