In the first week of 2020, and with the sinking heart of a post-chemo patient studying his scans and seeing a tumour smirking amid the shadows, Ireland learnt that history, in all its bounteous malignance, was back in the news again. And not some entirely new history emerging from recently-opened government files, but a well-attested history suddenly wrecking careful government policy. Amid Brexit, how could this make sense? This was like Britain halfway through the Gallipoli campaign getting hysterical over Waterloo.
The occasion was a small government-sponsored memorial event to commemorate the sacrifices of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police, 530 of whose men were killed during the Troubles of 1916-1922. In 2016, there were lavish commemorations of the 1916 Rising, and army officers read out the Easter Proclamation to every schoolchild in the land, including an encomium to “our gallant allies” (Kaiser Bill and his Merry Men). So a private, and virtually invisible ceremony to remember the dead of “the other side” did not seem amiss, surely? Well, as so often in Irish life, amiss is as good as a mile, and uproar promptly erupted. This began within the Sinn Fein-IRA family, but it rapidly spread to the main opposition party Fianna Fail, which suddenly scented votes in the fecund fields of Anglophobia which the Brexit debate has revived in Ireland.
When the present leader of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald, was campaigning for a seat in the European Parliament in 2003, she gave a fulsome tribute to Sean Russell, an IRA man and Nazi collaborator who died in a German U-boat in 1940. This homily to a Nazi stooge did her no harm and she was duly elected. And it was she who seventeen years later kicked off the protests against the RIC commemorations, though one of her followers went a little further and compared the RIC with the SS. This was an unintended compliment to the RIC, because the IRA were of course fervent allies of the SS.
However, logic has little to with this sordid little affair, and historical knowledge nothing whatever. The Royal Irish Constabulary was a highly respected force, against which republican terrorists launched a wholly unmandated and murderous assault from 1919-21, in the course of which 530 policemen were killed. Yet in republican mythology – an eight-syllable synonym for “lies” – the RIC has been transformed into a force of colonial oppressors, usually by being conflated with the later (and largely mainland British) New Police, recruited by London in 1920 to make good losses incurred by the RIC. These reinforcements were commonly (if inaccurately) known as the Black and Tans, because of their initial uniforms, but they were never a separate force and operated within the existing force. There was however another outfit, the RIC Auxiliaries, which did operate separately, often ruthlessly and even murderously.
The “Black and Tans” have nonetheless within a wholly bogus mythology become a distinct and separate force, and Irish newspapers – especially the once moderate but now the standard bearer of journalistic Anglophobia, The Irish Times – have largely aligned themselves with this falsehood. That the Auxiliaries, the New Police, and the old RIC, in response to frightful provocation, committed some atrocities, is indisputable. But their misdeeds were actually dwarfed in both numbers and repulsiveness by those of the IRA.
For example, the IRA celebrated St Patrick’s Day 1920 by murdering two unarmed Irish Catholic policemen as they left mass in Tipperary town. Two days later, at the same church, IRA murdered a third policemen leaving their funeral. In County Clare, six RIC men, five of them Irish Catholics, on a mobile patrol were caught in a hail of fire from 53 IRA men, some using dumdums. Three of the RIC men were killed, the other three wounded and then finished off on the ground. The night before a ceasefire came into effect in July 1921, four unarmed teenage British conscripts were allowed out of their barracks in Cork to buy sweets: they were too young to be allowed into a pub. They were captured and murdered by the IRA. After the ceasefire, IRA men murdered two RIC men in their hospital beds in Galway, and later burnt out the Protestant boys’ orphanage.
Having driven the train off the tracks, the IRA have emerged from the wreck looking like the protectors of Irish decency
Of the 193 British soldiers killed by the IRA, ninety were unarmed or as captives. Of the 540 policemen killed, 168 were killed off-duty, fourteen of them entering or leaving church. Between 1920 and 1923, the IRA also murdered 73 Cork Protestants. And with the British departure, the new Irish government faced an insurrection by Republican intransigents. It executed eighty of them after drumhead court-martials. Other rebels were tied to landmines and blown apart. The British never did anything like that.
Moreover, for Sinn Fein-IRA to protest against any historical accommodation towards the RIC of hundred years ago is a little rich; for six years ago, did not the Queen shake the hand of Martin McGuinness, who was the IRA’s chief of staff who authorised the bomb attack that murdered her cousin Lord Mountbatten, two children and a nonagenarian? Forgiveness was all the rage when Sinn Fein-IRA were seeking admission to the High Table of conventional politics. But now they’re there, they’re reverting to ancestral type, and have turned history into a moral battlefield, which – in between killing people – is what they invariably do. This time they have used the sewers of social media quite brilliantly, as their effluvia managed to recruit large numbers of hysterical, ignorant idiots in the cause of angry falsehood.
Thus, the unseen, murderous mandarins of the IRA army council – which is unquestionably calling the shots here – have managed to completely derail the Irish government’s ambitions to achieve a historical reconciliation between various Irish traditions. And yet, having driven the train off the tracks, the mandarins have emerged from the wreck looking like the protectors of Irish decency from the ravages of British brutality and collaborationist depravity. Gerry Adams once famously said of the IRA during a rocky period in the Peace Process, “They haven’t gone away you know.”
And you know, they still haven’t.
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