By the early years of this century the Royal Irish Constabulary had become an integral and widely accepted part of Irish life. The turbulent years that followed, leading up to partition and immediately after, witnessed considerable suffering on the part of many of those directly involved, not least policemen and their families.
The Home Rule campaign had steadily gained momentum during the 19th century, notably under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. The first two Home Rule Bills, however, in 1886 and 1893, were defeated in Westminster, preventing their realization. By the time of the third Home Rule Bill in 1912 the Lords could only delay the legislation for a period of two years, despite the consistent opposition of the Irish Unionists. With the threat of Home Rule looming, Ulster Unionist opposition, under the leadership of Sir Edward Carson and James Craig, stiffened even further. A 'Solemn League and Covenant' was signed by over 400,000 people on 28th September, 1912 pledging opposition, and the Ulster Volunteer Force was founded in January 1913. This private army was a disciplined, trained and armed force, which by the end of 1914 numbered 90,000 men. A similar opposed organization dedicated to the Home Rule cause, the National Volunteers, was raised in the South and numbered around 180,000 men. (A smaller militant group, between 3,000 and 10,000 men, called the Irish Volunteers, later seceded from the main body in September 1914.) When the outbreak of World War 1 intervened in this volatile and increasingly polarized political situation, it inadvertently created the circumstances for further dramatic developments.
In 1905 Sinn Fein was formed by Arthur Griffith, with the aim of nothing less than full independence from Britain. Also at this time the militant organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was revived. Working on the premise that 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity', a number of the I.R.B. formed a secret military council towards the end of 1915; its objective, a rising. The radicalization of politics and ultimately the escalation of political violence in the years following the 1916 Rising created an increasingly difficult situation for the police, as they sought to maintain a degree of stability amidst the rapidly shifting political sands.
The old Home Rule politicians were heavily defeated by a Sinn Fein landslide in the General Election of 1918. The newly elected Sinn Fein members refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead, on 21st January 1919, declared themselves to be the first Dail Eireann ('Parliament of Ireland'). On the same day at a remote place called Soloheadbeg, three miles from Tipperary, members of the Irish Volunteers ambushed two R.I.C. Constables escorting a cart-load of gelignite to a quarry. The two constables, O'Connell and O'Donnell, were shot dead by the gun-men, who escaped with their weapons and explosives. (The Irish Volunteers were reconstituted in the Spring of 1919 as the Irish Republican Army.)
Michael Collins, the I.R.A. leader, created teams called 'flying columns' to carry out a new type of hit and run guerilla warfare against the Crown forces. Throughout 1919 and 1920 the campaign, the brunt of which was borne by the R.I.C., continued with ruthless efficiency. A nationwide boycott of police was begun, often enforced by intimidation, and an alternative system of police and courts sprang up, orchestrated by the I.R.A. and Sinn Fein. In response to this situation and the growing number of police resignations the government raised a force of men on mainland Britain, mainly ex-soldiers, to act as police reinforcements. As there was no immediately available supply of police uniforms they wore a mixture of police and army uniform with police caps and belts - hence their nickname, the 'Black-and-Tans' (the name of a well-known pack of hounds in County Limerick). The government raised another force also, the Auxiliary Division of the constabulary (commonly known as 'Auxiliaries'), consisting for the most part of young ex-army officers. It was subsequently the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries who formed the spearhead of the government's attempts to break the I.R.A. During the latter months of 1920 and the first half of 1921 the conflict was pursued with a terrible ferocity by both sides. Attacks by the I.R.A. on the R.I.C. in Ulster led to the formation of the Ulster Special Constabulary in November 1920, a volunteer body of auxiliary police. In December 1920 the Government of Ireland Act (the decendant of the pre-war Home Rule Bill) was passed at Westminister, allowing for partition and the establishment of two separate parliaments - one in Belfast for the six counties making up Northern Ireland and another in Dublin. Eventually in July 1921, after more than two years of bloodshed, a truce, arranged with some difficulty, came into effect. In all 418 R.I.C. men and 146 British soldiers lost their lives. One in twenty of the R.I.C. had been killed and one in twelve wounded in the preceeding two years.
Talks between the Republican leadership and the British government led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, with the Irish delegation eventually agreeing to self-governing dominion status for the twenty-six counties in the Irish Free State. The Treaty, however, was unacceptable to Republican hardliners who refused to settle for anything less than a united, independent 'Republic'. The Treaty was ratified by the Dail on 7 January 1922, only to be followed by a civil war in the South between pro and anti-treaty factions even bloodier than the earlier conflict had been. Collins himself was killed by anti-Treaty 'Irregulars' in August 1922.
In January 1922 agreement was reached between the British and new Southern Irish Government to disband the R.I.C. It was replaced in the South by a new force, the Civic Guards. (The Dail later changed its name to the Gaelic version, Garda Siochana.) On April 4th 1922, exactly a century after the original formation of the Constabulary in 1822, the R.I.C. staged its final parade in Phoenix Park before disbanding. According to historians W.J. Lowe and E.L. Malcolm:
That the R.I.C. held up as well as it did in the difficult years after 1918 is remarkable when one takes into account that barracks were managed by large numbers of middle aged men with families to support. Their long careers signified experience, loyalty and knowledge, as well as a maturity that bolstered discipline under duress. But in both organizational and personnel terms, the R.I.C. was a civil police force and not a light infantry. And this presented a problem when confronted by a determined guerilla army.
Negotiations on the terms of disbandment of the R.I.C. were long and protracted, but eventually an agreement was reached. Compensation was provided for those not seeking reappointment in the new R.U.C., officially formed on 1st June 1922 with a large nucleus of former R.I.C. members. The transition from Royal Irish Constabulary to Royal Ulster Constabulary did not present any great problems for police on the ground. Headquarters changes and parliamentary discussion of the new Constabulary Bill (Northern Ireland) were far removed from barrack life. Northern Ireland had been spared the worst excesses of the 1919-21 Anglo-Irish conflict, but the police were kept fully occupied by the outbursts of rioting and assasination that erupted from 1920 between rival groups of Catholics and Protestants in the cities of Belfast and Londonderry.