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History - The B-Specials


The year 2000 marked both the eightieth anniversary of the formation of the Ulster Special Constabulary and the thirtieth anniversary of the standing down of the "B" Specials. It is an appropriate juncture to reflect on fifty years of public-spirited service and selfless devotion on the part of a much maligned force.

Prelude to the formation of the USC
During the course of 1920 southern Ireland started to slide into anarchy and chaos. Sir Basil Brooke, a Fermanagh landowner and future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, witnessed this at first hand as he visited his wife during her confinement in Dublin. With a view to averting such a descent into anarchy in Ulster, in April 1920 Brooke organised Fermanagh Vigilance, which to all intents and purposes was the pre-First World War Ulster Volunteer Force in the county reactivated.

At the Twelfth demonstration at Finaghy Sir Edward Carson. the Unionist leader, spoke of the state of the country and warned the Government "If ... you are yourselves unable to protect us from the machinations of Sinn Fein ... we will take the matter into our own hands. We will reorganise."

Shortly afterwards, the Ulster Unionist Council entrusted the responsibility of reviving the pre war Ulster Volunteer Force to Lt-Col Wilfred Spender. Sir James Craig also demanded the creation of a special constabulary but effectively the purpose of his call was to legitimise what was already in existence.

The Formation of the Specials
In formal terms the creator of the Ulster Special Constabulary was Sir Ernest Clark who in September 1920 was appointed additional Assistant Under-Secretary in the Irish Office with particular administrative responsibility for the area which was to form Northern Ireland. Sir Ernest recognised the urgent necessity of creating an armed force of special constables to deal with the rapidly deteriorating situation. Using powers available to him under the Special Constables Act (1832) he set about his task enthusiastically and energetically. Within five weeks of his appointment, on 22 October 1920, he published details of the new Special Constabulary which was to comprise three categories:

  1. A Specials
    These were to be paid and full-time but would only serve within the division where they were recruited. They would have the same arms and equipment as the RUC.

  2. B Specials
    These were to be part-time and unpaid, apart from a small allowance for service and wear and tear of clothes. Their arms were to be determined by the police county commander. They were to do "occasional duty, usually one evening per week exclusive of training drills, in an area convenient to members, day duties being required only in an emergency".

  3. C Specials
    They were to be a reserve force and were only to be called out in case of emergency. Initially recruitment, which commenced on 1 November 1920, was confined to Belfast and Co. Tyrone but was soon extended to all the counties which were to form Northern Ireland. By the end of 1920 the Special Constabulary totalled nearly 3,500 'A' constables, 16,000 'B' constables and over 1,000 'C' constables.

The early years
The years which witnessed the birth pangs of Northern Ireland were violent as the IRA sought to destroy the new state. Between 21 June 1920 and 18 June 1922 it has been calculated that 428 people were killed and a further 1,766 wounded. Over half of these occurred in 1922. In that year 232 people, including two Unionist MPs, were killed, nearly 1,000 wounded, and more than 3 million worth of property destroyed.

The historian R.B. McDowell recalls childhood memories of these years in his most recent book, Crisis and Decline (1997) "... one bright evening I stood at a window, looking out on an eerily deserted and silent [Belfast] street - curfew was in force. Suddenly I heard footsteps and saw a patrol of B Specials, decent, middle-aged men with police caps and armlets, carrying themselves with solemn determination. I felt reassured"

C.E. Duffin, son of a prominent Unionist, told his mother that he found his first patrol as a B Special "dull work". However, it was often dangerous work as the USC's Roll of Honour testifies.

In these years the B Specials were Northern Ireland's main counterinsurgency force. The effectiveness of the B Specials in quelling IRA activity was acknowledged by the officer commanding the IRA's 3rd Northern Division who admitted that deployment of the B men had forced him to abandon flying columns in Antrim and Down within two weeks of a planned offensive in the summer of 1922. In the western part of Northern Ireland the IRA's 2nd Northern Division and in Armagh the 4th Northern Division suffered a similar fate. Northern Ireland's survival owed much, if not everything, to the sterling service of the USC.

Years of tranquility
By July/August 1922 the IRA in Northern Ireland had been defeated. The services of the A Specials were dispensed with and the C Specials were never heard of again. Only the B Specials survived. The B Specials acquired uniforms, continued to perform duty once a week and to train and drill. Platoon, inter-county and province-wide shooting competitions became important events in the B Specials' calendar. Many B men became very proficient marksmen. There were disturbances in a variety of centres in the early 1930s but apart from serious rioting in Belfast in the early 1930s - which was mercifully of short duration - there was nothing remotely comparable to the murder and mayhem unleashed by the IRA in the early years of Northern Ireland's existence. If these years were largely quiet and uneventful, it was so as a consequence of the service and selfless devotion of the men of the USC.

The Second World War
In May 1940 the Northern Ireland Government established the Home Guard which was initially called the local Defence Volunteers. Unkind people claimed LDV meant "Look Duck and Vanish". The B Specials formed the nucleus of the Home Guard and was somewhat anomalously placed under the control of the RUC rather than the Army. During the war there was serious concern about IRA activity.

There had been an IRA bombing campaign on the mainland before the war. The IRA had also established contacts with German agents. "England's danger was Ireland's opportunity" had long been one of the IRA's maxims. For most of the war the IRA was quiescent. Apart from a gun battle in the Lower Falls on 5 April 1942 that largely remained the situation. The lack of IRA activity was in large measure due to the vigilance of the B Specials.

The 1956 - 62 IRA campaign
On 12 December 1956 the IRA launched ten simultaneous attacks on targets in Northern Ireland. The previous month Saor Uladh, a republican splinter group, attacked six border customs posts. These incidents marked the beginning of a campaign, largely waged along the border, which lasted until February 1962.The IRA campaign prompted the mobilisation of many members of the B Specials. Their intimate knowledge of their local area greatly restricted the IRA's capacity to conduct an effective campaign. The campaign resulted in the deaths of eight IRA men, two members of Saor Uladh and one IRA sympathiser and cost the lives of six RUC men. Damage to property was estimated at l million and the cost of the security operation was 10 million.

Tim Pat Coogan, a historian and supporter of the IRA, has observed "The B Specials were the rock on which any mass movement by the IRA in the North has inevitably floundered". He was right. Hence, the standard Republican demand for the disbandment of the B Specials.

The present troubles
An organisation styling itself the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association came into being on 1 February 1967. Views differ according to one's political viewpoint and prejudices as to whether or not it was simply a Republican or IRA front organisation. However, significantly one of its five demands was the disbandment of the B Specials. At the outbreak of the Troubles the USC had a strength of approximately 8,500 members. Of these, 3,000 were fully mobilised to assist the RUG. The remainder were part-time volunteers.

Objectively, the USC played only a very limited role in policing the Troubles, their primary responsibility being the guarding of key installations. The Cameron Report, appointed to examine the causes of the Troubles, published its report on 12 September and alleged that one of the causes of the Troubles was Roman Catholic resentment at the existence of the USC.

The following month saw publication of the Hunt Report which recommended inter alia that the RUC should become an unarmed police service and that the B Specials should be replaced by a new RUC reserve and a locally recruited part-time regiment of the British Army. Many Unionists would have readily concurred with Ian Paisley's observation that "if you want to destroy a country pull out the teeth of her defence forces and she will be easy prey."

During its fifty years of service the B Specials came to occupy a unique place of mythic proportions within the unionist community. They were regarded as the embodiment of the Northern Ireland state's ability to protect itself from internal and external threat. However, the recommendations of the Hunt Report were implemented. The USC was stood down on 30 April 1970.

Under the terms of the Police Act (NI) of 1970 the RUC Reserve, initially consisting of 1,500 men, came into existence. The Ulster Defence Regiment, with initially 4,000 members, became operational on 1 April 1970.

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