Interesting and provocative piece from William Matchett, who’s recent book on the RUC has been getting rave reviews, at least on the Unionist side of the fence. He doesn’t like to pull his punches:
The Troubles were due to a failure in politics, not a failure in security. No nationalist, or unionist, party is blameless. Neither London nor Dublin comes out of it well.
Of Hume’s SDLP, Gerry Fitt complained that it got too close to the Provisionals. Conscious of this, Hugh Annesley, in his chief constable’s annual report of 1990, said: “Anything less than real support for the police carries with it the prospect, indeed certainty, that violence will continue to afflict us all.”
In other words, it was not enough for the SDLP to condemn IRA murders of police officers, which Provisional Sinn Fein excused; it had to support the police. This never happened.
Yes, the police made blunders that angered nationalists. But this needs to be balanced against unprecedented levels of violence and a force that was turned around by 1976 and made fit for purpose by reforming chief constables.
Fake news and spin influenced nationalist opinion of the RUC more than facts and outcomes. This, and keeping both communities divided and distrustful of each other, benefited the Provos.
Police officers were dismayed at nationalist leaders who shouted about not getting normal policing and then worked against its delivery. It was the great dilemma of the Troubles; normal policing was the last thing the IRA wanted, but the hardest thing to pull off.
The SDLP seemed oblivious to this, and did itself no favours by sharing Left-wing policing concepts detached from reality.
In local politics, there was an absence of common purpose. Nationalists and unionists did not get on. The political shortfall put extra pressure on the police, although the SDLP did not appear to make the link.
But the relevance of all this consideration of fading history is contemporary. Matchett argues:
In the Belfast Agreement, nationalism and republicanism united in demanding the RUC’s disbandment and singling it out for a law to retrospectively investigate it.
A new criminal justice arrangement ensured a steady flow of criticism of the security policy. For nationalists, the subtext says, it was right not to support the police. And, for republicans, it says, the “armed struggle” was justified. They complement each other, which is what annoyed Fitt.
I doubt the one-sided approach that materialised and its divisiveness is what Hume had in mind. But it is what the Provisionals had planned for.
On the past, a “peace process” focused on security largely leaves politics and the Provos alone. It has made it easy to forget that the majority of the population supported the police and that the Provos were the main protagonist.
In the eyes of the two governments, this is pragmatic politics. For many people, particularly those touched by terrorism, it is a sordid sham. [Emphasis added]
And he concludes:
This is topical in claims that moderate Sunnis in war-torn nations sympathise with co-religionist jihadists and do not back the security effort. The US and others, as with Annesley before them, found this a major obstacle to ending armed conflict.
Violent insurgency is an iceberg. It is more than terrorism and headlines.
Provo historians are promoting their leaders as peacemakers and hiding Hume’s legacy, much to the annoyance of the SDLP.
The screening of a documentary sympathetic to Hume, In The Name of Peace, at the Galway Film Festival highlighted the issue recently. But what did the SDLP expect of Sinn Fein?
For 20 years, terrorism’s true face has been masked at the expense of a fine police force with no complaints from nationalist politicians and no interest from documentary-makers.
It’s as if the IRA never existed.
There are some telling omissions in this account, not least how we got to this general state of affairs in the first place. But before people go in feet first (I get more intolerant of instrumental trolling as time goes on), here’s some context.
RUC personnel accounted for some 9% of those killed between 1969 and 2001. 10,000 were injured, 300 of whom were disabled or seriously hurt. In addition, almost 70 officers committed suicide during the worst years.
1,183 RUC families were forced to move house, often with the same family having to move several times after threats from Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries (78 had to move as a result of loyalist intimidation during the Drumcree stand off).
Between 1969 and 2001 the RUC solved 50% of murders committed by Loyalists, compared with 30% of those committed by Republicans. In one Community Attitude Survey in the 90s 70% of Catholics cited fear of attack as a reason for not joining the RUC.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty