(A century and a half of) Police Reform in Ireland

January 11, 2021

[Editor’s note: Michael Silvestri, Professor of History at Clemson, is an expert on policing in Ireland (and through Ireland, across the British colonies).   Through independence, partition, and the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland has had to successively form and reform police forces.  Thinking that maybe the Irish example could inform the current discussions about the police in the US, I asked Michael if he might contribute to this series.  He has, below.  This is Clemson Humanities Now.]

The issue of police reform has been at the center of political debates in the U. S. over the past year, most recently emphasized by the failure of police to prevent the mob from overtaking the Capitol on January 6th. Policing has had a contentious history in modern Ireland, and the question of police reform has occupied an important role there as well.

Irish people today continue to debate the legacy of the police force known as the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The RIC was the police force of Ireland from 1836 to 1922. Considered one of the premier forces of the British Empire and a model for other colonies to emulate, the Irish force was constructed differently from the “Bobbies” of the Metropolitan Police and other police forces in Britain. While many of its duties were mundane, the RIC was nonetheless an armed, centralized police force under the control of Dublin Castle, the seat of British administration in Ireland. (The force was given the title “Royal” in recognition of its role in suppressing the Fenian Rebellion of 1867.) The RIC’s main functions were to provide political intelligence to Dublin Castle and to maintain order in the Irish countryside. The fact that close to 80 percent of its rank and file were Catholic by the twentieth century did not endear it to many Irish nationalists, who regarded the “Peelers” of the RIC as traitors to the cause of Irish freedom.

During the 1919-1921 War of Independence, members of the RIC were subjected to attack from the Irish Republican Army. The force’s reputation among nationalists was further tarnished both by RIC reprisals, and the recruitment to the force in 1920 of two groups of former British Army soldiers, the “Black and Tans,” composed of former enlisted men, and the “Auxiliaries,” composed of ex-officers Both groups committed widespread acts of violence as part of the RIC. In all, over 400 members of the regular RIC, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were killed during the conflict.

Many police forces of former colonies of the British Empire, whether in India, Africa, Asia or the Caribbean, can trace their lineage directly back to their predecessors under the British Empire. When the Irish Free State was established in 1922 in twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland, there was no attempt to incorporate the RIC into the structures of government. Instead, the RIC was disbanded and a completely new police force, An Garda Síochána (the Guardian of the Peace), usually known as simply the Gardai or “the Guards,” was established. This too, was a national police force, but with important differences from the RIC. The Gardai were unarmed, and owed their allegiance to the new independent Irish state; many former members of the IRA were appointed to senior positions in order to counter public suspicions that the force was simply the continuation of the RIC. Although a few members of the RIC with nationalist sympathies entered the Gardai, most remained in Ireland and attempted to adjust to civilian life, while over a third chose emigration, leaving Ireland either temporarily or permanently.

In recent decades, the lives and histories of Irish people who served the British Empire, particularly Irish soldiers during the First World War, have received increasing attention from historians and the Irish public. Yet, while the experiences of those soldiers have been portrayed sympathetically in Irish film and literature, as in the short film Coward (2012) and the novel A Long, Long Way (2005), the RIC continues to be a subject of controversy.

In 2018 Irish film Black 47, set during the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century, it is debatable whether the greatest villains are callous Anglo-Irish landlords indifferent to the sufferings of their Irish Catholic tenants, or the thuggish members of the Irish Constabulary, who in the film (as they did in history) provide protection for landlord agents carrying out evictions and guard shipments of grain intended for export from the starving populace.

The issue of the RIC’s legacy was thrust into the spotlight a year ago when plans were made to commemorate the RIC as part of Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries marking important events of Ireland’s “Revolutionary Decade” of 1912 to 1923.

On January 17th, 2020, the Irish government planned a ceremony at Dublin Castle to honor members of the RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police, which was responsible for policing the city of Dublin until 1925. The ceremony was explicitly not intended to honor the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, but it quickly attracted widespread public criticism. Although the Prime Minister at the time, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, defended the ceremony, arguing that “It’s about remembering our history, not condoning what happened,” a number of Irish mayors and politicians from both major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, said that they would not attend. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou MacDonald on Twitter called the ceremony “a calculated insult to all who stood for Irish freedom.”

The ceremony has been officially postponed, not cancelled, but on January 7th of this year, in response to a question in the Irish parliament, Justice Minister Helen McEntee stated that there are no current plans to reschedule it.