Update: 6.00pm on Tuesday 07.01 – commemoration cancelled as predicted.
Readers from outside Ireland are probably unaware of the political controversy currently engulfing Ireland. It is quite the tale, so buckle up and concentrate…
The years between 1916 and 1922 saw major political and historical upheavals on the island of Ireland. Starting with the failed Easter Rising in 1916 where rebels proclaimed the Republic of Ireland independent of British colonial rule; followed by their swift defeat and execution. This led to a massive swing among the electorate in Ireland in favour of independence. In 1918 the pro-independence Sinn Fein party won a landslide general election victory (except in unionist areas in the North), and refused to take their seats in Westminster (their MPs included Constance Markiewicz – the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons although she never took her seat). The first independent Irish Parliament (or Dail) sat in the Mansion House in Dublin in 1919 – it sat in secret as the British government didn’t recognise it. The guerrilla War of Independence raged between 1919 and 1921 before the eventual formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and the partition of Ireland. The Civil War in the Free State was fought between those who supported the Treaty forming the Free State and the partition of Ireland, and those who opposed it, between 1922 and 1923. So far, so complicated.
In other words Ireland is currently in the middle of a decade of centenary remembrances. Centenaries of events that caused huge division, conflict and death between families and communities, that are felt to this day.
The governing, right-wing Fine Gael party (the Irish Tory party) has been overseeing the centenary events and celebrations. These have largely been handled with care and sensitivity to the deep divisions the events caused. An all-party consultation group on commemorations has given recommendations on how the events leading to the formation of the state should be remembered. Up until 2020 that is.
The current Fine Gael Minister for Justice – Charlie Flanagan – decided to hold an official state commemoration for the pre-independence police forces – the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) who fought during the War of Independence. The event is to be held on January 17th at Dublin Castle – formerly the seat of British rule in Ireland.
Charlie Flanagan is the son of Fine Gael politician Oliver J. Flanagan – an anti-Semite who used his maiden speech in the Dáil, on 9 July 1943, to urge the government to emulate the Nazis and “rout the Jews out of this country… where the bees are there is honey, and where the Jews are there is money”.
Now Charlie Flanagan cannot be held accountable for his father’s views, just as the current Fine Gael party cannot be held accountable for the fascist Blueshirts who were part of the original Fine Gael party when it formed in the 1930s. Nevertheless it is interesting in the context of this commemoration of the RIC and the DMP.
The R.I.C. was formed in 1822. Unlike the DMP in Dublin it was an armed police force. It policed the nation on behalf of the occupying British power and was active in evicting starving tenants during the Famine, and in mass evictions during the 19th century land wars (an estimated 350,000 people). The rank and file officers tended to be Irish Catholics whereas the senior officers were Anglo-Irish from Protestant backgrounds. Despite the RIC and DMP’s violence towards striking workers in the 1913 Dublin Lockout – when 20,000 workers were ‘locked out’ by the 300 factory owners who did not want them to unionise – by 1919 the RIC and DMP were largely seen as a regular civilian police force.
So when the guerrilla War of Independence began in 1919, between the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) and the British Empire, the RIC created a special force called Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve – more commonly known as the ‘Black and Tans’ – the brainchild of Winston Churchill. The ‘Black and Tans’ was a paramilitary, terrorist organisation (known as such for the colours of its uniforms) largely made up of barely trained, demobbed World War 1 soldiers from northern England whose job it was to fight the IRA. In response to IRA attacks on their numbers the RIC and Black and Tans tended to retaliate against civilian populations. For example on Bloody Sunday in 1920 when the IRA – led by Michael Collins – killed fifteen people (nine British Army officers; three RIC members; one intelligence agent and two civilians) the RIC responded by killing fourteen civilian spectators and players at a football match in Croke Park. Tales of the Black and Tans’ murderous brutality are manifold.
It is true that atrocities are committed on both sides during a war. It is also true that many RIC officers quit their roles rather than participate in violence against their countrymen during the war. Many RIC and DMP men regarded themselves as simply policemen upholding the law and doing their jobs. However the commemoration to be held by Charlie Flanagan and Fine Gael as a centenary event, is by its very nature also commemorating the Black and Tans – an organisation that was part of the RIC and held in almost universal contempt and revulsion in Ireland.
The RIC and DMP were disbanded upon the formation of the Irish Free State and were replaced by the unarmed An Garda Siochana (Guardians of the Peace). The Black and Tans scarpered out of Ireland upon independence to the sorrow of absolutely nobody. A tiny number of RIC officers were absorbed into the Gardai, whereas far larger number joined the newly formed sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary in the North.
The mind boggles at Fine Gael’s reasoning for an official state commemoration of a colonial police force whose function was the thwart the democratic will of the Irish people for independence – regardless of the intentions of individual members. It’s the equivalent of the Japanese government holding a state commemoration for the US soldiers who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Former Taoiseach John Bruton (a man so craven, he wept tears of joy when Prince Charles visited Ireland) appeared on television last night defending the murderous Black and Tans as ‘just following orders’ and who deserve commemoration because ‘they died in Ireland’. I wonder if this is a view widely shared by Fine Gael.
Owing to the sustained and ongoing revulsion towards this commemorative event, I think it’s inevitable that it will be cancelled – already the invited mayors and councils throughout the land have said they are boycotting the event. The current Lord Mayor of Cork says he will not attend out of respect for Thomas McCurtain – the Mayor of Cork, murdered in his home by the RIC, in front of his wife and child in 1920.
Leo Varadkar thinks it is ‘regrettable’ that officials are refusing to participate. There is a general election in a couple of months. What on earth is Fine Gael’s logic?