Declassified Files: Police officers’ leaders split over response to Agreement

John Hermon pictured at Brooklyn House with police Federation during cheque presentation. Alan Wright is to his left.
John Hermon pictured at Brooklyn House with police Federation during cheque presentation. Alan Wright is to his left.

The leadership of the Police Federation was split on the approach which it should take to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with some senior figures wanting to openly confront the Government, declassified official files have revealed.

The chairman of the body, which represents rank and file officers, told a senior civil servant that such a course of action would be “potentially disastrous for the organisation and for the RUC.

Files released at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 30/20 Year Rule contain a document which the federation handed to deputy Secretary of State Nicholas Scott at a meeting on January 15, 1987.

Just over a year after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the paper made clear that within the RUC there was significant disquiet over the accord.

It also contained an apparent warning to the Government that the RUC could not be relied on forever to enforce the outworkings of the agreement.

It said “the Government has got itself on a hook over the Anglo-Irish Agreement and, because the force is an arm of Government law and order, we are on a hook as well in relation to the majority community.

“We do not intend to stay on that hook indefinitely and there may come a time when we will say that the policing consequences of the Agreement are no longer an acceptable burden for police officers and their families”.

However, while the rank and file RUC officers were deeply unhappy and that view was reflected by the federation’s central committee, it was not shared by federation chairman Alan Wright.

A confidential January 2, 1987, note by AK Templeton in the NIO’s Police Division referred to a conversation with Mr Wright. It said: “Mr Wright was at pains to point out that he and the majority at least of his office-bearers regarded the Central Committee’s projected course of action as potentially disastrous for the RUC and the Federation. I took the opportunity to reinforce this view.

“Much of the pressure... seems to be coming from the Border areas, but Mr Wright feels that throughout the force there remains a deep-seated unease which has festered and needs to be let out. The proposed open opposition to the Agreement is not the way to do this and Mr Wright very much wants to find another way out.”

A December 29, 1986 memo from AW Stephens in the NIO said it was “distinctly worrying that the Central Committee of the Federation are apparently hell-bent on adopting a more overtly political stance”.

He was also critical of Chief Constable Sir John Hermon. Mr Stephens said it was “reasonable” for the Federation to relay to the Government the concerns of its members but added “though the Chief Constable would deny them even that much licence”.

He went on to say: “It is certainly true that we would be spared some of their excesses if only the present Chief Constable had handled them more adroitly over the years”.

At an earlier meeting with Mr Scott, Mr Wright told the minister that “no RUC man likes the agreement, but they still do their job”.

A memo of a meeting between the Prime Minister and Alliance leader John Cushnahan on March 6, 1986, expressed concern about police actions during a one-day unionist protest.

A note of the meeting by Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary Charles Powell reported Mr Cushnahan’s view that it had “done damage to the RUC’s reputation which might well be further increased by the leaking of a tape recording of a Police Federation meeting in Northern Ireland at which strong criticism of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was expressed and applauded.

“This would make it much harder to persuade the minority to support the security forces.”