The views expressed here and in the stories which are published are those of the participants in the Voices From the Vault Project. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Diversity Challenges.
Diversity Challenges has through its oral history work facilitated and enabled these stories and views to be expressed. We hope that this adds to a better understanding of our troubled and conflicted past.
In all conflicts there are competing voices and accounts surrounding the causes of the conflict and the actions of those involved or what happened to them; therefore it is imperative that many views are heard to provide the fullest possible understanding of the Past. If we are to learn from the past and build a future on a firm foundation, that can only be provided by a clear understanding of historic events and the views from many differing voices from differing backgrounds and viewpoints.
Such an understanding may also help victims and survivors obtain some insights and help to address today’s challenges that stem from the Past.
It is unusual for state agents in any conflict to talk about their experiences. The opposite is true for the non-state actors. To date there has been a cacophony of critical voices from those who study policing from afar, which drowns out the police voices when they try to speak. A small number of officers have ‘spoken’ in the oral history project of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross (RUC GC)1 and the Peace Funded Project by Diversity Challenges Green and Blue2. The 40 stories collected from former RUC GC and Garda officers in Green and Blue has also been used as the source material for the play Green and Blue which is produced and performed by Kabosh Theatre3. While Chris Ryder4 offers an investigative journalistic account and Richard Doherty5 offers a historic account of
policing and the RUC. From an academic perspective, there has been the odd few academics such as Brewer and Magee6 (who conducted an ethnographic study) and Dr Jon Moran7, who approached their research with an open mind, while Dr William Matchett8 provides an insider view. As key participants the voices of former police officers and their families can make a valuable contribution to understanding the Past by saying how ‘The Troubles’ affected their lives, as well as explaining why aspects of policing were done the way they were, and, giving insights into the motivations and perceptions of individual officers.
Everyone in Northern Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have a shared past and a shared present. To have a better shared future we need to hear the voices of other communities to better understand the past and perhaps shorten the shadow it casts over our today and tomorrow. By looking at our own experiences and narratives in conjunction with those of others in the spirit of understanding, rather than seeking the ascendancy of one voice above all others, which only entrenches division, we can start to begin to develop a wider understanding.
Those from a paramilitary background both Republican and Loyalist, critical academics and NGOs have for a long time voiced their perceptions on state actions, and, on occasion to try to justify the use of unlawful violence. The police use of intelligence, because it was central to the state response during ‘The Troubles’, has attracted much negative
comment, even though for at least one former IRA member it helped persuade the IRA to adopt peaceful means to further their political aspirations (Conway 20179). Nevertheless, the state use of intelligence remains controversial partly due to the imbalance between ‘insider’ accounts and the number of critical outside and one-sided accounts. This imbalance in favour of ‘outsiders’ distorts the historical account of ‘The Troubles’.
Increasingly over the last 20 years the voices of victims, those innocent victims who chose not to use violence for a political purpose, are beginning to be heard even if they aren’t as strident as the critical long standing and stronger voices. However, the voice of police officers is less frequently heard.
Police officers in general are reluctant to speak about their work. A unique impediment in NI is, that by speaking out, the police voice could jeopardise counter terrorist measures and/or lead to the identification and ultimately murder of those who played a central role in countering violent terrorism. Such reticence may also be due to not wanting to jeopardise criminal proceedings, or to protect sources of information, and a sense that the police don’t talk about their work.
Issues of trust and access are important if individual police officers are to come forward.
Unfortunately, to date the strength of critical voices and the investigations that seek to attribute blame, find fault or support preconceived critical positions have given rise to a firmly held belief amongst RUC officers they will not be afforded a fair hearing, that their comments will be taken out of context and misrepresented, and, that their actions will be reviewed through the lens of hindsight and modern standards. This belief makes them distrustful of providing accounts. This distrust was overcome by following an ethical methodology using researchers they knew and trusted to locate their accounts in the context of the time.
Oral histories provide a voice for the personal experiences of ordinary people who lived and worked in extraordinary situations and times. The ‘voices’ of RUC officers offering accounts of history will make a valuable contribution to the historical archive of ‘The Troubles’. As ‘The Troubles’ ended nearly 20 years ago, the availability of RUC Officers is diminishing along with the potential forobtaining their oral histories.
This work seeks to provide insights into policing during ‘The Troubles’ using the voices of retired RUC officers. What follows is a collection of oral history stories from former RUC officers of what it was like to be a police officer during the period 1968 (which marked the start of ‘The Troubles’) until 4th November 2001 (when the RUC was incorporated into the post conflict Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)). Their histories include why they joined the RUC, several of whom did at a time when police officers were targeted for murder (which you would think would deter people from joining such a dangerous occupation), and, the effects that had on their personal and family life.
Participants go on to talk about their experience of ‘doing’ policing, as well as their experience of intelligence led policing as the RUC and Security Forces countered political violence from Republican and Loyalist groups before discussing their views on topics which have drawn critical comment and sometimes unfair criticism.
1 These can be accessed at the RUC GC Museum Brooklyn Knock Belfast. https://www.rucgcfoundation.org/
4 Chris Ryder 1989 Force Under Fire, Methuen
5 Richard Doherty 2004 The Thin Green Line, Pen and Sword
6 Brewer J & Magee K 1991 Inside the RUC, Oxford University Press
7 Moran J 2008 Policing the Peace in Northern Ireland: Politics, Crime and Security After the Belfast Agreement, Manchester
8 Matchett W 2016 Secret Victory, Matchett Lisburn
9 Conway K 2017 Southside Provisional: From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts, Orpen