The RIC and the Black and Tans

Published in Editorial, Issue 5 (September/October 2022), Volume 30

editorIn spring 2020 justice minister, Charlie Flanagan, announced, as part of the official Decade of Centenaries events, a commemoration of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RIC). Such was the public outcry that it had to be abandoned. Nevertheless a commemoration eventually took place in April 2022, but in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. This was accompanied by the usual hand-wringing from proponents of the original proposal who lamented that it wasn’t possible to have it in Ireland and lectured us all on our lack of ‘maturity’. It was bad history, they argued, to conflate the ‘ordinary decent’ Irish-born members of the force with the atrocities committed by the ‘Special Reserve’ of non-Irish Black and Tans deployed from March 1920 onwards. But as I argued here previously some of the worst atrocities of the period were committed by longstanding Irish-born officers of the RIC, such as District Inspectors Oswald Swanzy (murder of Tomás MacCurtain) and John William Nixon (MacMahon murders) and up to 25% of the latter were Irish-born in any case. Further, as D.M. Leeson establishes conclusively in this issue (Platform, pp 14-15), quoting the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Hamar Greenwood, on 25 October 1920—‘men described as Black and Tans are not a separate force, but are recruits to the permanent establishment of the Royal Irish Constabulary’—the Black and Tans were ordinary constables of the RIC. Moreover the recruitment of these ex-servicemen was not some aberration but entirely consistent with the paramilitary character of the Irish Constabulary (‘Royal’ since its role in suppressing the Fenian rising of 1867). In that sense the April 2022 commemoration in St Paul’s was entirely appropriate—a commemoration in Britain of those of all nationalities, including Irish, who served in one of its military forces. But it was never appropriate to commemorate the RIC in Ireland as a civil police force, separate from the fictional ‘Special Reserve’ of the Black and Tans.

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