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History - The Royal Ulster Constabulary

 

tunic from 1940It was against this lawless and uncertain background that the new Government of Northern Ireland assumed responsibility for law and order. Under Section 60 of the Government of Ireland Act the R.I.C. in the six counties making up Northern Ireland were placed under its authority. On the 31st January Dawson Bates, the first Minister of Home Affairs, appointed a committee of inquiry on police organization in Northern Ireland. They were asked to advise on any alterations in the existing police necessary for the formation of a new force (i.e. recruitment and conditions of service, its composition, strength and cost).

An interim report was published on the 28th March 1922, the first official report of the new Parliament, and it was subsequently accepted by the Northern Ireland Government. On the 29th April 1922 King George V granted that the force could be called the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In May the Parliament of Northern Ireland passed the 1922 Constabulary Act and the R.U.C. officially came into existence on 1st June. The Headquarters of the force was established at Atlantic Buildings, Waring Street, in the centre of Belfast, and Charles Wickham became the first Inspector General. The uniform and insignia of the R.U.C. remained essentially the same as the R.I.C. From the beginning it had a dual role, unique among United Kingdom police forces, of providing a normal law enforcement police service while protecting Northern Ireland from the terrorist activities of outlawed groups. For personal protection its members were armed (a continual requirement since the formation of the constabulary in 1822).

The R.U.C. was to be a 3000 strong force for the whole of the province. It had the support of the Ulster Special Constabulary, a volunteer body of part-time auxiliary police who were given uniforms and training. The R.U.C.'s senior officer, the Inspector General, was appointed by the Governor of Northern Ireland and was responsible to the Minister of Home Affairs in the Northern Ireland Government for the maintenance of law and order.

Neither the newly established Irish Free State nor the state of Northern Ireland had an auspicious beginning. The polarized political climate in Northern Ireland resulted in violence from both sides of the political and religious divide. The lawlessness that affected Northern Ireland in the period of the early twenties, and the problems it caused for the police, are indicated in a police report drawn up by District Inspector R. R. Spears in February 1923. Referring to the situation in Belfast after July 1921 he states:


For twelve months after that, the city was in a state of turmoil. The I.R.A. was responsible for an enormous number of murders, bombings, shootings and incendiary fires. The work of the police against them was, however, greatly hampered by the fact that the rough element on the Protestant side entered thoroughly into the disturbances, met murder with murder and adopted in many respects the tactics of the rebel gunmen. In the endeavour to cope simultaneously with the warring factions the police efforts were practically nullified. They were quite unable to rely on the restraint of one party while they dealt with the other.


By the mid-twenties the situation had thankfully calmed down. Indeed the closing years of the decade were so notably peaceful that in January 1928 the most serious issue exercising Dr. J.C. Loughbridge, the magistrate at Whiteabbey Petty Sessions, was the prevalence of courting couples in the suburbs parking their cars on the wrong side of the road.

The 1920's and '30's were years of economic austerity. Many of Northern Ireland's traditional industries, notably linen and shipbuilding, were in recession. This contributed to the already high level of unemployment. Serious rioting broke out in 1932 in Belfast in protest at the inadequate nature of Poor Law relief. In their protest against governmental parsimony Catholic and Protestant working class areas found common cause, an almost unique situation either before or since. Community relations, particularly in Belfast, were consistently volatile and serious disturbances could easily be triggered off by a variety of symbolic events (for example, the sectarian enthusiasm which marked the celebrations of the Silver Jubilee of George V in May 1935). Seasonal marches could also quickly degenerate into communal rioting. Any such occurrences inevitably involved the deployment of police, and placed great demands on their limited resources.

traffic branch from the sixties In response to the growth of motorized transport the R.U.C. Traffic Branch was formed on the 1st January 1930. In 1936 the police Depot at Enniskillen was formally opened and an £800,000 scheme to create a network of 196 police barracks throughout Ulster by rationalizing or repairing the 224 premises inherited from the R.I.C. was under way. In May 1937 a new white glass lamp with the R.U.C. crest went up for the first time to replace the R.I.C. crest still on many stations. About the same time the Criminal Investigation Department in Belfast was significantly expanded, with a Detective Head Constable being appointed to head the C.I.D. force in each of the five Belfast police districts.

Sporadic I.R.A. activity in the 1930's also required that the R.U.C. be constantly vigilant. In 1937, on the occasion of the visit of the King and Queen to the Province, the I.R.A. blew up a number of Customs Posts. In 1939 an I.R.A. bombing campaign was launched on the British mainland. This campaign effectively ended on the 25th August, a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The war, not surprisingly, brought additional responsibilities for the police. The security of the land border with neutral Eire was one important consideration. Allied to this was a greatly increased incidence of smuggling, to the point where police virtually became Revenue Officers. Smugglers dealt both in goods that were in short supply because of rationing and more generally in anything that would return a handsome profit. There were also many war-time regulations to be enforced, including 'black-out' requirements on house and vehicle lights, the protection of Post Office and Bank monies, and restrictions on the movement of vehicles and use of petrol. The R.U.C. was a 'reserved occupation', i.e. the police force was deemed essential to the war effort on the Home Front and its members were forbidden to leave to join the other services. However the extra responsibilities imposed by the war and the constant threat of I.R.A. activities ensured that policemen were fully employed.

The wartime situation gave a new urgency to the discussions regarding the appointment of women police. The Ministry of Home Affairs finally gave approval to the enrolment of women as members of the R.U.C. on 16th April 1943. The first six selected recruits entered the Depot in Enniskillen on 15th November under the tuition of Sergeant Marion Macmillan, who had transferred from the London Metropolitan Police to establish the new unit.

In the post war years the R.U.C continued to develop as a police force. In 1950 a Reserve Force of around 100 men was formed on the same lines as the earlier R.I.C. Reserve. (This eventually developed into the Mobile Support Units now attached to police divisions.) A pay rise in 1954 of £45 brought a Senior Constable's salary up to £550 per year. In 1958 there was a change in uniform, with the traditional high-necked collar being replaced by an open necked tunic with collar and tie. Unfortunately moves towards better working conditions were temporarily halted by a brief I.R.A. campaign between 1956 and 1962. This so called 'short campaign' reached its peak in 1957-9 and cost a total of nineteen lives, including seven police officers.

The 1960's witnessed a number of important developments for the police. In 1962 Headquarters moved to a brand new complex at Knock in Belfast, which provided improved accomodation and facilities for the force. In 1964 plans to rationalize policing in rural areas led to the closure of a number of stations, and the areas concerned were subsequently policed by mobile patrols from neighbouring stations. Working conditions for police were also affected in 1967 by the introduction of a forty-two hour week and limited opening of the remaining small rural stations. By this time the police force was able to provide a twenty-four hour mobile service, which represented a major step forward.

The end of the 1960's is particularly associated with the Civil Rights campaign and the beginning of what is generally referred to as 'the Troubles'. The extra policing this entailed all over the province placed tremendous pressure on the R.U.C. at a time when it was undergoing an internal restructuring of resources. In August 1969, in response to the rapidly deteriorating public order situation, the Army was called in to aid the civil power.

Following an exhaustive inquiry into the disturbances in Northern Ireland carried out by the distinguished English judge Lord Scarman, the then Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, called in Lord Hunt, leader of the 1953 Everest exhibition, to assess and advise on the policing problem. He was assisted in this task by Sir Robert Mark, who later became commissioner of the London Metropolitan police, and Sir James Robertson, the then Chief Constable of Glasgow. The subsequent report, published on 3rd October 1969, recommended a complete reorganization of the R.U.C. with the aim of both modernizing the force and bringing it into line with the other police forces in the U.K. Most importantly it resulted in the introduction of the British rank and promotion structure, the disbandment of the Special Constabulary, and the creation of a Police Authority representative of the whole community. The R.U.C. Reserve was formed as an auxiliary police force and all military-style duties were handed over to the newly formed Ulster Defence Regiment, which was under military command.

On the 11th October 1969 Constable Arbuckle was shot on Belfast's Shankill Road during serious rioting in protest at the recommendations of the Hunt report. He became the first police fatality of the current Troubles. In August 1970 two young constables, Donaldson and Millar, died when an abandoned car they were examining near Crossmaglen exploded. They became the first victims of the re-organized 'Provisional' I.R.A. campaign.

In March 1972 the Government of Northern Ireland resigned and the parliament was prorogued. Northern Ireland subsequently came under direct rule from Westminster with its own Secretary of State, who has overall responsibility for security policy.

The size of the R.U.C. has since increased on several occasions because of the terrorist campaign. There are now 8500 regular police officers supported by about 5000 full-time and part-time reserve officers, making it the second largest force in the United Kingdom next to the Metropolitan Police in London. The independent direction and control of the R.U.C. is vested in the Chief Constable, who is assisted by two Deputy Chief Constables and nine Assistant Chief Constables. For operational purposes Northern Ireland is divided into 12 Divisions and 39 Sub-Divisions. R.U.C. ranks, duties, conditions of service and pay are generally in line with those in Great Britain.

Officers in Belfast The difficulty and danger of the R.U.C.'s task of serving the community in the face of terrorist activity is reflected in the number of officers who have received awards for gallantry. Awards since 1969 include 16 George Medals (the highest award for civilian bravery), 103 Queen's Gallantry Medals, 111 Queen's Commendations for Brave Conduct and 69 Queen's Police Medals. In the 25 years between 1969 and 1994 (October) 195 R.U.C. and 101 R.U.C. Reserve members have been killed and over 7000 injured as a result of the security situation in Northern Ireland.

The aim of the police force is to provide a high quality and effective police service for everyone. In modern times this involves dealing with a very wide range of criminal activity. The R.U.C. is assisted in this task by specialist police units concerned with areas such as serious crime, terrorism, anti-racketeering, drugs, stolen cars, traffic offences and domestic violence. Supporting services include photography, mapping, fingerprinting and the dog section. The R.U.C. also employs many civilians in a number of sections and in general administration, leaving police officers free to concentrate on their primary task of tackling crime.

The ongoing reforms and modernization of the R.U.C. are evidence that it is a force sensitive to local needs and willing to change in its continuing efforts to provide the best possible service to the public. More recently the aims, standards and values underpinning the police force in Northern Ireland have been expressed in the R.U.C. Citizens Charter, published 1993. Whilst it is impossible to predict the future, one can certainly hope that the vital role of policing will cease to be a political issue in Northern Ireland and become, more appropriately, one in which the entire community supports the R.U.C. and participates with it in protecting everybody from criminal activity.

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