REFORMING THE RUC: Ulster's police: a century as Unionism's armed wing

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The Independent Online
CONSTABULARIES IN Ireland have often had unhappy histories. The RUC is no exception. It came into being when Northern Ireland was born in 1922, one of its primary functions being the preservation of the state.

It therefore stood little chance of developing into any kind of consensual, representative or truly civilian service, being fated to remain a heavily armed force with a Unionist and Protestant ethos.

Its forerunners in the northern part of Ireland tended to have similar characteristics. A local force raised in Belfast in the 19th century, headed at one point by Chief Constable McKittrick (no relation) had 160 officers, only half a dozen of whom were Catholics.

Commissions of inquiry established after various outbreaks of rioting in Belfast and Londonderry almost invariably concluded that partisan police had contributed to the violence. It was said of them: "They rather excite a mercurial mob to acts of violence, than tend to repress its intemperance." One newspaper proprietor commented: "It was rather a common occurrence for policemen to beat Catholics when they can get the opportunity."

From 1922, the RUC was under such direct control of the Stormont government that it came to be characterised as "the armed wing of Unionism." Its Catholic component never rose about 10 per cent: some of these officers said they were treated fairly; others privately complained of discrimination within the force.

The RUC was both demoralised and heavily criticised for its performance in 1969, when the Army had to be called in after it lost control of the streets. Television pictures of RUC men batoning civil rights marchers did much to discredit the Unionist system in the eyes of the world. An attempt to disarm the force was hastily abandoned as violence spiralled in the early 1970s.

It assumed a new importance from the late 1970s as the authorities adopted a policy of police primacy, also known as "Ulsterisation", which was aimed at curbing the deployment of the Army and increasing the size and status of the RUC. Since then its manpower and resources have been greatly expanded.

This has meant that for the past two decades the RUC has been in the lead in security terms, though in practice authority is shared with the Army and other agencies such as MI5. As such it has become an integral part of the British security system.

David McKittrick