While we’re talking about the RIC and Home Rule… August 30, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
There’s a fair lesson in ambiguity in last weekend’s Irish Times editorial over the ‘unofficial’ memorial service for RIC and DMP members who were killed during the Independence struggle. It would be difficult to determine exactly where the writer of the piece falls on the issue. And in particular the concluding lines are masterful.
The memorial service is being organised by two former Garda Síochána members who believe that, after 90 years, “a few prayers should be said for these men who, for the most part, were honourable and honest police officers”. It is a generous, Christian sentiment. Policemen tend to be alert to the ethical dilemmas that may confront their colleagues at times of strife and civil unrest.
The public and politicians are less understanding and operate to a different compass. Accepting the past, warts and all, is a sign of maturity. Learning from it, however, takes time.
Hmmm… But what is to be learnt in this context? To be honest I think that official recognition of the RIC is taking pluralism just a step too far. It is useful to consider how the (near) successor organisation to the RIC in Northern Ireland, the RUC, was eventually disbanded due in no small part to overwhelming lack of support (to put it mildly) from one community. In a context where there was essentially overwhelming societal antagonism to the RIC it seems somewhat perverse to try to refashion history at this remove. The RIC, like the RUC – whatever about individual officers in both – passed into history for good reasons. That said if some seek to commemorate them unofficially there’s no point in – and no means of – stopping that.
Another sentence that struck my attention was the following:
These men served the British Crown and sought to prevent the emergence of an Independent State. During that struggle, terrible things were done on both sides. But the atrocities committed by some RIC members and particularly by their supporting auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, still resonate.
Just how polarised the situation had become, following six years of guerrilla warfare, was reflected in a decision by the Free State government to disband the RIC and the DMP and to replace them with the Garda Síochána.
That decision flowed from the “reinforcement” of the RIC by the Black and Tans and the terrorising of local communities. Some RIC members objected to what was going on.
I find it a bizarre proposition that the Free State government would have retained the RIC and DMP. Such a decision would have made no sense given that the nature of the Free State government – which for all its flaws did cleave to a path to independence – and the text of the Treaty which in Article 10 said the following:
10. The Government of the Irish Free State agrees to pay fair compensation on terms not less favourable than those accorded by the Act of 1920 to judges, officials, members of Police Forces and other Public Servants who are discharged by it or who retire in consequence of the change of government effected in pursuance hereof. Provided that this agreement shall not apply to members of the Auxiliary Police Force or to persons recruited in Great Britain for the Royal Irish Constabulary during the two years next preceding the date hereof. The British Government will assume responsibility for such compensation or pensions as may be payable to any of these excepted persons.
Implicit in that is an change in the nature of policing and police forces in the Free State.
Nor was it a matter of polarisation that developed during warfare but the result of a long standing antagonism to a militarised and garrisoned force (it’s notable how other police forces in the then United Kingdom were unarmed). Chris Ryder in his fairly sympathetic history of the RUC noted that the RIC in addition to the attributes just noted:
…was regarded as being the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle…[although] individual members of the force were respected figures of substance in their local areas.
It’s also worth noting in passing that the RUC wasn’t a simple continuation of the RIC, but instead a merging of former UVF, the Ulster Special Constabulary (formed in 1920) and northern based units of the RIC.
Interestingly, the DMP was a vastly less despised organisation despite its noxious activities during 1913. When in 1916 members of the DMP were issued with rifles following the Rising they held a march from Kevin St. to Dun Laoghaire with their batons in a coffin. At Independence it continued in a sort of half-life as the Políní Átha Cliath and was not subsumed into the Gardai until 1925 (I once talked to a Garda archivist on this very topic and his assessment was that it was the unarmed nature of the force that allowed for its partial continuation). This division was so stark that the PAC had different uniform and helmets and, of course name, to the RIC. But it’s also worth noting albeit under a different name and command). That it was the intelligence arm of the DMP which incurred the greatest losses during the Independence struggle is telling.
Stephen Collins at the weekend followed up the editorial with one of his increasingly narrowly focussed pieces on the topic. For him there is no question about commemorating the RIC and doing so ‘officially’.
The past is a different country but it is surely about time to give some recognition to those who have been ignored in the dominant popular historical narrative. After being forgotten for so long, those who died in the first World War can now be commemorated openly. If the Irish State cannot find it in its heart to commemorate those who served and died at home as policemen trying to keep the peace, the decade of commemoration will lack completeness.
But as noted above the RIC were explicitly not ordinary ‘policemen’ but a garrisoned and militarised force – and the only one in the then United Kingdom. The idea that they served and died ‘trying to keep the peace’ is a nonsensical phrase in the context of the actual history. Their history was one of repression from their foundation and this continued right up to their disbandment. To ‘honour’ them as being analogous to the Gardai does the latter force a deep – almost existential – disservice. For all their flaws the Gardai are democratically legitimised in a way that the RIC were not.
Of course, no one is suggesting that all RIC men at all times were wrong, but their function, their history and their use was one which cannot simply be waved away under the notional cover of ‘inclusivity’.
And while the most obvious response to Collins is what his thoughts are about a commemoration organised for the Black and Tan that in a way is too glib. For Collins that would be a bridge too far:
As Conor Brady pointed out in this paper yesterday, the RIC men generally conducted themselves with forbearance and dignity in the face of a ruthless terror campaign directed against them by Collins. Their unwillingness to respond in kind prompted the British government to import the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to wage a counter-terror campaign. While few members of the RIC or DMP joined the Garda on the foundation of the new State, in time many of their sons and grandsons followed the family tradition. At least five Garda commissioners had ancestors who were in the RIC, and the policing methods and ethos of the Garda owes an awful lot to its predecessors.
But if the logic being used here is that the RIC are worthy of commemoration because they served and died ‘trying to keep the peace’, why not the Black and Tans who did likewise? That they did so in a more energetically murderous fashion is surely just a matter of degree rather than principle.
In any case the ethos of the Garda actually owes remarkably little to the RIC, being unarmed, open, subject to a reasonably more direct democratic legitimacy and so forth.
But Collins point is, as always, shaped towards a (blindingly obvious) political end.
In his groundbreaking essay for the magazine Studies written in advance of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising in 1966, but not published until 1972, Fr Francis Shaw SJ addressed some of the key problems created by a narrow nationalistic interpretation of the past. One of the difficulties he identified was that the dominant nationalist interpretation of history in the 1960s required the Irish people of that decade to disown their past and censure as unpatriotic the majority of their grandparents’ generation who were not attracted by new revolutionary ideas in 1916.
The then professor of early and medieval Irish at UCD summed it up by suggesting that the accepted canon of Irish history “asks us to praise in others what we do not esteem or accept in ourselves”.
In other words the majority of law-abiding people who live by democratic standards are required to despise those in earlier generations who adhered to the same values while honouring those who rejected them.
In political terms it means that political leaders from Daniel O’Connell to John Redmond are airbrushed out of popular history while revolutionaries such as Pádraig Pearse and Michael Collins are elevated to iconic status.
The central problem with this thesis is that it ignores one pertinent fact in relation to ‘democratic standards’ and ‘political leaders’ who supposedly adhered to same.
As I’ve noted previously on this site they failed. They failed utterly.
The Home Rule Party (I should really call it the IIP) didn’t break due to a rejection of ‘democratic standards’ on the part of Republicans, it broke due to the inability and unwillingness of the British to implement an Home Rule policy in relation to Ireland (and more specifically the Third Home Rule Bill) – policy that it had promised but long delayed and then did not realise. If those had been granted, as they were meant to be, and implemented in full it is possible that advanced nationalist thinking would have been delayed by years – though given the cauldron of World War One and all that that implied perhaps not. Moreover, WWI is essential to this history, and in particular the way in which those who went and fought for ‘democratic standards’ at home in Ireland felt betrayed by British inaction on Home Rule. And there are broader issues too. Was British democracy in 1913 to 1922 a paragon which was beyond reproach? This was, after all, a state which denied the exercise of the franchise to women, which in its actions beyond its borders was profoundly imperialist and so on. In relation to this island there was the Curragh Mutiny, overlooked by the British Government of the day. The threat of political violence a product of political unionism. And so on.
Had Home Rule as a project not failed then of course Redmond would be more than what is effectively a footnote in Irish history. But that’s not how history played out and to implicitly point back at Republicanism and ‘revolutionaries’ as being those at fault in this process is absurd. There were a myriad of factors at work here and many of them pre-dated the appearance of Republicanism as a serious force.
But Collins ignores how Home Rule itself set the ground for what came after. From a perspective a little less limited than his own the distinction between Redmond and Pearse was much less clear cut than he appears to believe. I’ve noted previously how an Unionist reading, as offered by Peter Robinson this year at the Carson Lecture, offers a view that is not to the liking of the Collins et al of this world. Robinson noted that:
Those who see the response of Carson and his fellow unionists as an over-reaction to Home Rule fail to recognise that the inevitable outcome of Home Rule was complete independence. Unionists in 1912 saw their very way of life as being under threat and, consistent with the modus operandi of the age, were prepared to go to whatever lengths necessary to defend their position.
There’s no point in dancing around that issue. For Unionism Home Rule was hardly less revolutionary than outright Republicanism (sufficiently so to see Unionism shift to an essentially dissident, oppositional and ultimately armed stance), and once set in train that engine – almost certainly – would not stop short of ultimate disengagement from the Union. And this explains why unionism both in its Irish and British variants was so adamantly opposed, to the point of insurrection, against the half-measure of Home Rule. How does Collins think that in a world absent Republicanism that particular series of events would have been played out?
But Collins excises this from the story because it is only by doing so that he can present a tale of purity untainted by reality.
And let’s not ignore his explicit linking of the past with the present:
The reality is that most of our modern political leaders have far more in common with the values of the old Irish Parliamentary Party and its leader than they have with those who directed the activities of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Yet our current generation of politicians still finds it difficult to acknowledge their political predecessors while falling over themselves to pay obeisance to revolutionary leaders whose values they don’t actually share.
This approach to our past means that those who served as policemen before 1922 are either denigrated or ignored, while those who killed them are accepted as heroes.
Yet when similar events happened in modern times most people were firmly behind the police and opposed to modern armed revolutionaries who at times showed as little compunction about killing gardaí as Collins’s squad had about killing RIC men.
It is interesting to reflect on just how open Collins now is in this thinking. For him it clear the Independence struggle has no clear legitimacy. A curious position to adopt some might think.
I think what irritates me most is the sheer laziness of the analyses on display in relation to these matters. The narrative is that Home Rule – presented as democratic and untainted and, most absurdly of all, attainable – was supplanted by undemocratic ‘revolutionaries’, the RIC must be commemorated because the political context within which Home Rule operated must be made appear as normal as possible in order to exaggerate the rupture that was Republicanism with the pre-existing order.
There’s little doubt that Republicanism was a rupture with that pre-existing order, but that pre-existing order was profoundly dysfunctional in and of itself – as, ironically, the existence of an armed and garrisoned police force indicates.