Declassified Files: RUC in 1985 a motivated force winning terror battle

RUC officers on public order duty, December 1985
RUC officers on public order duty, December 1985

Two NIO officials’ tour of a series of RUC stations in June 1985 provides a vivid outsiders’ account of life in the force during an era when it began to win some major battles against terror groups, but also saw many officers murdered.

WJE Norton and C Evans — whose brief appears to have been in part to get a sense of how the RUC was spending the considerable resources directed towards it — reported their observations to senior civil servants and NIO ministers.

Mr Norton said that “at close quarters, the RUC are a courageous lot, and the quality of some officers at least is impressive: morale is high; the force is smartly turned out; and one senses a corporate feeling that they are slowly but surely making headway against terrorism”.

Despite the threat from republican and loyalist terror groups, he said that 80 per cent of the RUC’s time was spent on what the police described wryly as “ordinary decent crime”.

Miss C Evans’ lengthy confidential report provided detailed information about RUC operations of the time (see panel, right, on Carrickmore police station).

In Strabane, the officials were told that co-operation with the Garda was “good” but the Republic’s police force was constrained by a lack of resources.

Around 100 officers lived at the station and Miss Evans related a “good humoured but strongly felt complaint about the decision that money could not be fund to include a squash court in the design”.

She said: “At first, I thought this sounded a rather extravagant proposal but the chief inspector explained that it is virtually impossible for police officers to take normal exercise outside the station.

“It was not considered safe for them to go for a walk or to swim in the local pool (where members of the Garda could swim safely). The nature of the area meant that the young men were under quite a lot of stress which could be relieved by physical exercise.”

Miss Evans described accommodation at the station as “pretty basic” but said it was due to be replaced with new buildings.

In west Belfast, police told officials that despite having to be accompanied by the Army at all times, the division “strives to carry out a normal policing role and that members of the community look to them to deal with normal crime especially with the high levels of robberies, burglaries and vehicle thefts.”

She added: “The officers we met said that it was difficult to generalise about the attitudes of the public to the police. Some were openly hostile, others seemed to accept their presence with a grim sense of humour.

“Overall active opposition in riots, etc, had fallen off considerably since the 1970s. The police believe that the majority of the population are opposed to the terrorists’ methods but are afraid to co-operate with the police.”

In Ballymena, a station where there was a “very limited” terrorist threat, senior officers told the officials that sectarian problems at marches and elections were the major problem.

The officers said that “marches through Catholic estates were designed to intimidate residents and a heavy police presence was needed to reassure the minority community and prevent outbreaks of violence.

“A recent parade had involved 78 bands from all over the Province….the RUC was seeking to get across the message that policing marches was an expensive use of police resources and to prevent organisers from choosing provocative routes”.