In an article in the Irish Times recently, the journalist Chris Ryder called for a public memorial to the Royal Irish Constabulary. Though Ryder’s article is measured, it reminded me of the long-running “revisionist” campaign being waged by many public figures, notably Kevin Myers and Eoghan Harris, to rehabilitate the image of British rule in Ireland. Apart from this, Ryder’s article brought to mind my own ancestors. One of my great-grandfathers was a member of the RIC; another was an IRA volunteer. I am told that both men were decent and honourable. However, my sympathies lie with the man who fought for an Irish republic.
Although the so-called revisionist movement began as opposition to the Provisional IRA, its adherents now question the legitimacy of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. They argue that armed conflict between Ireland and Britain was unnecessary because Home Rule had been passed in 1914. However, this analysis is problematic. For one thing, the version of Home Rule on offer entailed the partition of Ireland, which was opposed by the majority of its citizens. Of course, the 1916 Rising was not democratically sanctioned either, but this must be seen in the context of the British government's anti-democratic refusal to grant 32-county Home Rule during the previous 30 years. Another problem with the revisionist analysis is, as Brian Hanley argues, its failure “to appreciate the contrast between what Home Rule meant in reality and what in meant in the minds of its supporters.” In essence, ordinary Irish nationalists took Home Rule to mean independence and, even before 1916, most of them were not opposed in principle to using military means to achieve it. Nationalists celebrated the centenary of the 1798 rebellion and many were prepared to fight a civil war against the Ulster Volunteers to secure Home Rule. Indeed, it seems the objection that Home Rulers had to armed resistance against British rule was not that it was immoral, but simply that it was unlikely to succeed. In any case, Home Rule was a far cry from meaningful independence. To F.S.L. Lyons, it was “little more, indeed, than glorified local government”. That was much less than what John Redmond and his supporters desired, and much less than the significant degree of independence won for the 26 counties by the IRA’s guerrilla war of 1919-21.
It is unlikely that the British would have conceded independence at that time without a fight. Their reaction to the result of the 1918 general election suggests this much. When the uncontested Irish constituencies in that election are taken into account, it is clear that a majority of the electorate in Ireland supported Sinn Féin, a party that promised to secure an Irish republic “by any and every means available”. The British ignored this mandate for a republic and the RIC sided with them. I believe the RIC was wrong.
In fact, the RIC was wrong on many things. The force was never very popular, particularly in rural areas. This is not surprising, for RIC officers participated in tens of thousands of evictions in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, when Irish tenant farmers began to agitate in the 1870s in order to better their position and gain ownership of their lands, the RIC stood with the British against them. Chris Ryder himself concedes that many Irish people saw the RIC as “an instrument of the exploitative absentee landlords and the British administration” rather than as the police force of the Irish people. As Brian P. Murphy argues, it is simply inaccurate to compare them with the Garda Síochána of today. The RIC was armed and it had a military ethos. More importantly, according to Murphy, its officers were involved in political policing well before the violence of 1916:
[E]ven before the introduction of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) in August 1914, the RIC, as part of their normal duties, reported on the political activities of Irish citizens. After the introduction of the DORA, these reports were used, in co-operation with the army, to subject Irish citizens to trial by court-martial and to deportation without trial by civil law.
This practice intensified in 1918 and Murphy argues that the British administration in Ireland had effectively become “a military-style regime” prior to the first shots of the War of Independence being fired in 1919. Thus, it seems the job of the RIC was to pacify the Irish rather than to protect them.
I have no difficulty commemorating my great-grandfather Michael Gallagher and the other members of the RIC. By all accounts, he was a good man; I am sure many others in the force were as well. Yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the RIC was more a British police force than an Irish one. At almost every turn in Irish history, RIC officers took the part of the British establishment against their fellow countrymen. Nevertheless, I do not have any objection to a public memorial to the RIC. However, I do object to the campaign to delegitimise the contribution of my other great-grandfather, Dominic O’Grady, who fought for meaningful independence for this country. The modern Irish republic is the fruit of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. I see no reason to disown these rebellions or the republicans who fought in them.