Leo Varadkar: RIC event backlash ‘a setback for Irish unity’

A republican backlash against plans to commemorate Irish police officers killed by the IRA has been a “setback for Irish unity,” according to the Irish government.

Unionists have expressed concern that the fierce backlash over a planned RIC commemoration reveals worrying levels of anti-British sentiment
Unionists have expressed concern that the fierce backlash over a planned RIC commemoration reveals worrying levels of anti-British sentiment

Commenting after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was forced to cancel next week’s planned event – marking the deaths of hundreds of RIC officers during the War of Independence – Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said the forced climbdown showed that that Ireland is “quite clearly nowhere near ready” for a border poll.

“Any unionist looking at this will be rightly very concerned at the idea of reuniting Ireland,” he told the Pat Kenny Show on Wednesday morning.

Mr Varadkar also claimed that the prospect of Irish unity was “a little bit further away” due to a lack of understanding.

“I regret that this is a setback for unity and a setback for reconciliation,” he said.

Speaking to the media following the officially opening of the BT Young Scientist Awards on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar added: “It is my deep regret that this week, embracing that shared history; moving towards a united Ireland seems to me to be a little bit further away than it was before.”

Earlier on Wednesday Mr Flanagan said the government intended to organise an alternative commemoration in the coming months as it was important that the shared history is acknowledged.

“The Irish story being more than one nationalist story. Any unionist looking at this will rightly be very concerned at the idea of reuniting Ireland,” he added.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had described the event as an “error in judgment” that caused “unnecessary controversy,” while Sinn Fein branded the commemoration – in respect of both the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metroplitan Police – “an insult to those who fought for Irish freedom”.

As criticism mounted, Mr Varadkar announced on Tuesday evening that the event had been called off.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson described the Irish government’s climbdown as a “retrograde step,” and added: Those leading the vehement opposition to this event are the same people who tell those of us in Northern Ireland that British identity would be respected and accommodated within some mythical ‘new Ireland’.

“When agreement cannot be found to commemorate those who died 100 years ago it is a clear demonstration of how far we still have to travel in terms of respect and reconciliation, particularly in relation to the British identity in Northern Ireland by republicans.”

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said: “Describing members of the Royal Irish Constabulary as ‘colonialists’ and ‘oppressors’ when the vast majority of these men came from the island of Ireland, and served their communities with dedication, is an insult to their memory and their descendants.

“These types of comments do nothing to build reconciliation.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said that the “climbdown by the Dublin government over commemorating the RIC is a telling signal to unionists as to how they and their history would be treated in an all-Ireland”.

Kenny Donaldson of victims’ group the South East Fermanagh Foundation said: “The message being conveyed by many in recent days is this; we’re interested in unification of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter if you’re Irish republicans.

“But if you’re ‘West Brits’ or worse still, full-blown British unionists then there’s no place in a ‘new Ireland’ for you.”

Former police officers on both sides of the Irish border have expressed disappointment at the level of opposition to what would have been an important milestone in the reconciliation process.

Stephen White, chairman of the RUC George Cross Foundation, said: “As someone who has the privilege of being the chairman of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC Foundation, whose role is to mark the sacrifices and achievements of the RUC, obviously I would be supportive of those who wish to mark the sacrifice and achievements of our forebearers in the RIC.”

Mr White added: “As a former police officer, both in the RUC and PSNI, and someone who has served with law enforcement all around the world, it is sad that there are still people who see police officers as targets, when in fact they are only men and women trying to do their duty.”

Gerry Lovett of the RIC and DMP Commemoration Committee, a retired Garda officer, described the backlash was a “great disappointment”.

Mr Lovett said: “It is a great disappointment to us that people still want to wallow in the ancient grievances of 100 years ago, when all of those involved are dead.

“As our first minister for justice, Kevin O’Higgins, said, ‘Commemoration of the dead is a glorious and honourable thing’.”

However, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams described the climbdown as a “victory for people power”.

The Louth TD said: “The RIC and DMP were not protecting communities from harm. They were inflicting harm. The rule of law these two paramilitary forces were maintaining was designed to defend British interests in Ireland.”

He added: “While there may have been some among them who wished to be police officers neither organisation was a police service. No doubt there were decent officers in their ranks and their families have the right to pay tribute to them. But for the state to commemorate these organisations is wrong.”