A Black and Tan constable on duty in Dublin. Photo: Flickr/National Library of Ireland

An ill-judged commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary is cancelled as Fine Gael underestimate negative sentiment towards former British occupation, reports Josh Newman

Earlier this week the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and his ruling party, Fine Gael, showed once again that they are woefully out of touch with public sentiment in Ireland. They announced a commemoration event for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), to be held later in January which caused widespread outrage across the country. 

The RIC were the official police force across Ireland from 1822-1922, when the whole island was under British rule. If you only look at the organisation as a more or less neutral element of a previous administration then it would perhaps be possible to understand Varadkar’s pleas to ‘embrace [a] shared history’. However, this ignores the true brutality of the British occupation of Ireland and the role that the RIC played in that. 

It has been pointed out that most of the RIC were Irish in a bid to make the force part of the grassroots history of the country that is worth commemorating. This misses the facts that the senior administration was disproportionately Anglo-Irish and protestant, that recruiting indigenous people into police forces was an extremely common tactic among all of the Western imperial nations as a pernicious way of cementing power, and that the RIC were armed unlike the police force in England, Scotland, and Wales at the time.

Arguably the most controversial aspect of commemorating the RIC is the role of the infamous Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in the force. Varadkar, amongst others, rebuked the idea that the proposed commemoration would be a celebration of the Black and Tans. However, both groups were definitively recruited as part of the RIC during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21). There is some ambiguity around who these terms refer to but essentially the Black and Tans were recruited directly into the RIC and the Auxiliaries were supposed to be a somewhat separate, anti-terrorist, paramilitary division that came under the umbrella of the RIC. The Black and Tans were referred to as such because the uptake was so quick that they had to wear a mixture of dark green (RIC) and khaki British military uniforms.

The RIC had always been employed to violently quell Irish resistance to British rule but the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries exhibited a particular level of arbitrary brutality. Although the RIC were armed, undertook quasi-military drills, and had worked to supress Irish rebellions during the 19th Century, they were still a glorified police force and not trained for warfare. As such, they were not prepared for the War of Independence between the IRA and the British State in which the IRA conducted a guerrilla campaign which was unlike the more open military tactics employed by the leaders of previous risings. The British State built a paramilitary force largely from WWI veterans to crush this ultimately successful threat to British rule in Ireland. These men were barely trained before being sent to Ireland and their violent reprisals against IRA actions have made them notorious and synonymous with the some of the most horrific aspects of British occupation. 

After the immediate backlash which followed the announcement of the commemoration, the event has been cancelled. Varadkar has said he hopes that it can be rescheduled for a later date and, strangely, took the opportunity to call the Irish public immature and say that this showed that the possibility of a United Ireland was further away than he had thought.

All of this would have been interesting enough but the icing on the cake this week is the popular response to what has come off as a serious judgement error from the Irish government. Within a few hours in the Republic of Ireland, and a couple of days in the UK, the Wolfe Tones’s song Come out ye Black and Tans reached #1 in the iTunes download charts. Whilst this may seem trivial it speaks to a powerful sense of contempt for Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar, and centrist revisionist history, and an awareness of the British State being in the midst of a very serious temper tantrum that is coming to a head. The fact that the band themselves have announced that they will donate all the proceeds of this surge to homeless charities only confirms that the strength of this message lies not only in anti-imperialism but in the understanding of how class and austerity link to national politics. 

Although the brief surge of a segment of two national populations spending just under €1/£1 on a song by a group most famous for Irish rebel songs might not seem like a major event in international politics it is connected to a very deep crisis in the British State and its historical roots. This week alone we have seen wild outrage over the prominent and broadly well-liked second royal son and his wife stepping back from the Royal Family after a prolonged and obsessive media campaign of abuse directed towards Meghan Markle and a large, spirited demonstration for independence in Glasgow. In December’s General Election, the six counties of Northern Ireland returned a nationalist majority for the first time since the partition in 1921. 

Whilst Labour’s equivocation around Brexit was undoubtedly the major factor in the General Election loss last month, their strangely defiant position on not holding a Scottish independence referendum will not have played well in constituencies north of the English border where they might have been well-placed to recuperate votes lost to Blairism after 10 years of devastating Tory austerity which has disproportionately hit Scotland and Wales along with large areas of England deemed non-profitable. Although the Welsh independence movement has had less publicity and public backing than the Scottish one, the case for further independence from Westminster is mounting and the Welsh language has always maintained the strongest position among the minority languages in the UK. 

Whilst the Taoiseach proving once again that he is completely out of step with the Irish public is not news in and of itself, it is a reminder of how far Fine Gael have come from their roots in the struggle for independence. 

The UK media will of course focus on the weird discussion surrounding Harry and Meghan’s departure from royal duties but a month where the Wolfe Tones top the iTunes charts, Yma o Hyd is climbing the charts in Wales, tens of thousands of Glaswegians hit the streets to demand independence, the Unionist majority is finally lost in the six counties, and Brexit still wrecking the heads of the British establishment, perhaps the Union with its roots in the early days of British capitalism is beginning to fall apart. 


Josh Newman

Josh Newman is a teacher, musician, and writer from East Kent who now runs Counterfire and Stop the War branches in Oxford