Top RUC officer: We should remember and respect those former police officers who paid the ultimate sacrifice, including 60 in South Armagh

Much was said and written about police memorials this/last week.

Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 2:43 pm
Updated Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 2:48 pm
List of officers who died in service at RUC George Cross Memorial Gardens. It took courage to be in the RUC and bereaved families deserve compassion

This followed media coverage that, among recommendations to improve policing in South Armagh, authors of a report suggested that memorials to RUC officers murdered in the area should relocated away from public view.

The fact that there are no memorials on view to the public in the PSNI stations referred to, Crossmaglen and Newtownhamilton, should have rendered this a non-story.

However, that was not the case.

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Stephen White OBE is chair of the RUC George Cross Foundation. He was RUC Assistant Chief Constable and concluded his police service in the PSNI in 2004. Since then, he has worked around the world as a police consultant including a term as an EU Head of Mission for Rule of Law in Iraq

While the PSNI’s communication strategists appeared to go ‘absent from duty’ policing once again became a political football and the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s role in our society became the subject of debate and, specifically, how murdered officers should be remembered.

Some ambiguity about how members of the PSNI senior commanders view their history was compounded by a quote from one of its management team that “we have to get away from the RUC past – the country has moved on; military memorials are backward facing”.

When that quote was read out to me by a BBC interviewer last week, I expressed disappointment and dismay. I also pointed out that the organisation the person is managing includes the RUC!

As I never tire of reminding people, the RUC was not disbanded. The law clearly states in section 1 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 under “Name of the police in Northern Ireland” that “The body of constables known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary shall continue in being as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary)”.

I like to think that ‘exploration’ of issues to improve policing and expression of ideas were well-intentioned. I am sure they were not deliberately insensitive. Surely no insult was intended to relatives and colleagues of RUC officers callously murdered while providing a police service under the most dangerous and difficult of circumstances. However, they did cause distress — and anger.

They also displayed a very different perspective from my own if they regard remembrance of brother and sister police officers as militaristic and backward looking.

The RUC, not by choice, was forced into operating with military support, residing in fortified barracks, and patrolling in a style that, rightly, tried to minimise casualties. Despite that, almost 60 RUC officers and more than twice that number of soldiers were slaughtered in South Armagh.

We are all thankful that those days are over and that community policing is the norm – with efforts quite rightly being made to improve relationships and increase confidence. However, we must learn from the past and, yes, move forward – hopefully in partnership with all right-thinking people in the area – but we should not forget recent history and the specific context in which policing was delivered.

It took courage to be a member of the RUC and bereaved families, at the very least, deserve consideration and compassion. If it provides some comfort, to know that their loved ones are remembered by colleagues, surely, we can facilitate that.

In my discussions with RUC widows, some of whom call their group ‘Forgotten Families’, there is a palpable sense of continuing hurt and injustice.

This was expressed to me most strongly only a few weeks ago when we discussed legacy proposals such as the ending of all investigations into past murders.

As one lady put it, “We shouldn’t be wiped under the carpet. Our husbands were innocent and had the courage to put on a uniform and go out to serve the people of Northern Ireland.”

I would never claim that the RUC was perfect or without fault. But, it comprised men and women who represented law and order and were required to perform their duties in the most testing of conditions — day after day, week after week, year after year. For those who paid the ultimate price, we must remember them and respect their service. Their families deserve compassion and care — not disrespect and dismissal.

I am proud to have served alongside the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC. I am also very proud to associate myself with groups like the RUC GC Widows Association and the RUC GC Bereaved Parents Group.

The quiet, dignified manner in which they conduct themselves is both humbling and inspiring. Nothing can replace the loss they have endured but the very least they deserve is to be spared any further distress.

They should always be considered and consulted when sensitive decisions are considered – and their loved ones’ service remembered, valued and respected.

• Stephen White is Chairman of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC Foundation – a body established “to mark the sacrifices and honour the achievements of the RUC”. He served in the RUC from 1978 in all ranks up to and including Assistant Chief Constable and concluded his police service in the PSNI in 2004. Since then, he has worked around the world as a police consultant including a five-year term as an EU Head of Mission for Rule of Law in Iraq. In 2004 he was awarded an OBE for his services to policing.

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