Policing the Troubles

In divided Northern Ireland, policing by consent turned into community vigilantism

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive—
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Saint Francis of Assisi

So reads a Mass card for Paddy Joe Crawford. The prayer: wrongly attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. The death: wrongly attributed to suicide.

The conflict in Northern Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century, known simply as the Troubles, was the reawakening of a history that would never have remained dormant. The fight over the six small counties that make up Northern Ireland was generations old, with Catholic nationalists on one side (who wanted to unite with the other 26 counties of Ireland and get rid of discriminatory British rule once and for all) and the Protestant loyalists on the other, who wanted to remain part of Britain. Often cast as a war fought along religious lines, in reality it was a sectarian monster that sucked in whole communities, stoked by loyalty, family, religion, honor, and almost every other aspect of the human condition.

In the late 1960s, as violence and divisions over the status of Northern Ireland grew, the lives of Northern Ireland’s young men and women differed greatly from their counterparts in Ireland, or across the Irish Sea in England, Wales, or Scotland. Catholics (and you didn’t have to be Catholic to be a “Catholic”—this was a sectarian label assigned at birth rather than a badge signifying religion) faced huge state discrimination, underrepresented in politics after hundreds of years of gerrymandering by the British government and lacking representation in their own security services. This was also before the all-seeing eye of the state emerged, before technology became the savior of security services the world over. While it seems almost unimaginable now, the Troubles was a conflict during which Gaddafi could ship Semtex, rocket-propelled grenades, and assault rifles to the shores of Ireland, right under the nose of one of the British security services.

It was in this context that Paddy Joe Crawford met his end while imprisoned at Long Kesh in 1973 for IRA activity. According to the IRA, his “suicide” in captivity was a result of the punitive conditions for IRA members inside Northern Ireland’s prisons. But the Boston College interviews with former IRA man Brendan Hughes in Ed Moloney’s Voices From the Grave revealed that Paddy Joe’s death, despite the brutal injustice of the British prison system at Long Kesh, actually came by order of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. He was hanged by his comrades-in-arms, a macabre scene in which “a black cloth was draped over the improvised steps from which young Crawford was pitched into eternity and his wrists were taped behind his back.”

It seems a blackly fitting end for a young man raised as an orphan by the Poor Sisters of Nazareth, who heeded the call to volunteer for the IRA, probably co-opted like so many others by romance, circumstance, loyalty, opportunity. His crime was allegedly to crumble under interrogation after he was arrested.

• • •

It’s nearly two years since I wandered away
With the local battalion of the bold IRA,
For I read of our heroes, and wanted the same
To play out my part in the patriot game.
The Patriot Game,
Dominic Behan

Emblematic of the deeply unromantic reality of the Troubles, Paddy Joe’s death was for a long time an empty footnote in the hidden war. The story of the British government subverting the rule of law in Northern Ireland is well-told, but often forgotten is how the vast array of paramilitary groups—almost Pythonesque in name and number—subverted their own rules of law, their cause, and ultimately their reason for existence.

Paddy Joe’s death sentence symbolizes the Kafkaesque nature of policing and justice in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. As the IRA used his “suicide” as a symbol of their struggle for civil rights, little did most of the Nationalist community—or the world at large—realize that Paddy Joe’s life had been taken by the IRA itself. Its imposition of the death penalty makes any allegations of civil rights abuses and poor prison conditions seem glaringly banal in nature.

A year later, in 1974, another life was ended in another kangaroo court. The Ulster Defence Association had originally started as a network of associations created to protect the community, in theory against the IRA. In 1974 the UDA was still a legal organization, as far as the British government was concerned, and its commander in South Belfast was still regarded as a “community leader” by the British army. Hiding its bombings and shootings under the nom de guerre of Ulster Freedom Fighters, the UDA itself was not proscribed by the British government until 1992, a glaring example of state indifference toward a terrorist group that shares some of its motives.

In this period, the local UDA in Belfast’s staunchly loyalist Sandy Row district had promised action against criminality. A women’s unit abducted Ann Ogilby, a Protestant, in broad daylight, along with her six-year-old daughter. While her daughter was sent to buy sweets, a hooded Ogilby was beaten to death by teenage girls with bricks in a “romper room”—a disused space where those “convicted” were sent to be tortured and killed. This wasn’t a sectarian killing; it stemmed from jealousy and moral policing amid accusations of sexual promiscuity. Ogilby allegedly had an affair with a UDA member’s husband, but even if that had been case, the killing demonstrates how, with the unchecked power that vigilantism can unleash, the organization spiraled far beyond its mandate. The question of what those teenage girls would have been doing had they grown up in any other western European country in the 1960s and ’70s will remain forever unanswered.

The influence of Sir Robert Peel, regarded as the founder of the modern police force in 1829, can be felt all over Britain, Ireland, and democracies the world over. Ironically, despite his notion that “the police are the public and the public are the police,” Peel was himself once a supporter of anti-Catholic discrimination, and in Northern Ireland the foundation for his famous Nine Principles of Policing, policing by consent, would fall apart.

Before creating the Metropolitan Police Service in England, Peel had set up Ireland’s Royal Irish Constabulary in the early 19th century, during a time when the whole of Ireland was still under British control. However, their ­descendants—in Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary—were corrupted before they even began, the clue being in the name. (Since the peace process, the police in Northern Ireland use the more inclusive name of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.) How could a majority Protestant police force hope to police a large and restive Catholic Nationalist community? They couldn’t, and they didn’t. Originally the RUC was to be made up of at least one-third Catholics, but this quota was soon dropped. By the 1960s, just a tiny percentage of the force was Catholic, and the tinder for three decades of conflict was ready for a spark.

This raises the question, Just who were the vigilantes in Northern Ireland during the Troubles? The RUC may have been the force of the state, but they failed to meet Peel’s benchmark of policing by consent. If you don’t have the community within you—if you are not the ­community—then what are you?

The ambiguously named Special Patrol Group of the RUC had an equally ambiguous mandate: “to provide backup in civil commotion, to police sensitive areas at times of confrontation, and to show the flag in a disciplined and impressive way to those who wished to break the peace.” It often served as a mask pulled over the face of the state, acting both with and without the state’s consent. Most notoriously, the so-called Glenanne gang based themselves at a farm in County Armagh to engage in secret warfare against the IRA. Made up of SPG officers, British soldiers, and members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, the Glenanne gang was responsible for a wave of illegal killings. Similarly, the Royal Ulster Constabulary ­Headquarters Mobile Support Unit—trained by Britain’s Special Air Service and working in tandem with the secret services—was long suspected of carrying out illegal killings on behalf of the British government. Being a state force, this death squad merely faced the neutered complaint of “having a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy.

State recognition means little if the state itself is rotten, at war with its own people. That paramilitary policing should flourish in such a climate is unsurprising. While the Loyalists were instrumentalized by the state, Republicans created a state within the state. The IRA as well as other Republican groups saw the need to police the community as a vital part of their struggle for a united Ireland, as did the Loyalists, working on the other side to maintain the divide. Here, representation by and support for the cause is not necessarily analogous to the practice of policing by consent.

Is policing possible without the working machinations of a state and all that comes with it? In Northern Ireland the answer was a new lexicon of violence: Kneecappings, punishment beatings, romper rooms, forcible exile. Add curious front groups into the mix, like the IRA’s Direct Action Against Drugs (ostensibly set up to rid the community of drug dealers; in practice a pretense for killing them) and you have a veneer of community policing that, like the RUC, was destined to fail.

• • •

Catholic homes caught fire because they were loaded with petrol bombs; Catholic churches were attacked and burned because they were arsenals and priests handed out sub-machine guns to parishioners.

—Ian Paisley, at a loyalist rally in 1968, following attacks on Catholic homes

Jean McConville was one of the most famous of the Disappeared—those abducted, murdered, and secretly buried by the IRA during the Troubles. When she was abducted for informing on IRA activities, her children recognized the abductors as neighbors, and they reportedly called the children by name. Years later, seeing the abductors, McConville’s children remained incapacitated. “You can’t do nothing. They walk past you like nothing happened.”

The problem with times of great progress is the expectation that this progress will elicit an almost all-­encompassing reform. The reality is more that after these events time can appear to tick backward, an initial rush of change caught up in the complexity of a divided society.

That the once foaming mouth of Ian Paisley, who regarded Catholics as “vermin” and the IRA as literal friends of the devil, would one day as First Minister become the mouth of Northern Ireland is no less extraordinary than the fact that former IRA commander Martin McGuiness was to become, in 2007, Deputy First Minister: an illustration, if ever one were needed, of the great divide that had to be crossed at great pain to both sides.

Northern Ireland is often held up as a beacon, a model for resolving conflict. If anything, Northern Ireland, despite its recent success, is a lesson on just how long it takes to achieve institutional change, even in a society with highly developed institutions. Today, 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the paramilitaries maintain their desire to “police” and control: Tit-for-tat murders, racist attacks on immigrants in Loyalist communities, masked men brandishing handguns in broad daylight covering walls with warnings to drug dealers. You can’t strip people of “hard-earned” power and influence and expect those structures to melt away. The state maintains this same desire to suppress, to leave what needs to be investigated uninvestigated. 

Contradiction is at the heart of the Troubles: the idea that in order to fight a brutal state, you need to create a brutal state within the state. The result is that the people effectively live in two or three or four brutal states at once, multiplying injustice. This may serve some side’s cause, and it may serve the people at times. But in Northern Ireland it often left the community with nowhere to go, with even less recourse than they had to start with.