Remembering the Royal Irish Constabulary

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has taken the bizarre decision to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Justice, has stated specifically that the commemoration will not honor the Black and Tans nor the Auxiliaries. The latter two organizations were particularly notorious for sectarian brutality against Irish Catholics.

But what of the commemoration of the RIC and DMP? On the one hand, these forces were largely made up of Irish people. On the other hand, these Irish people were acting as agent’s of the British government, and they opposed the democratic wishes of the majority of Irish people to be fully independent from Britain. Still, many living Irish people in Éire have ancestors who were members of the RIC and DMP; they might argue that their relatives were merely doing a job, and that their relatives didn’t actively oppose the Irish people who fought for independence. Indeed, many members of these forces abandoned their jobs when the people began to boycott them–they were socially ostracized, which became extremely painful. So, the taoiseach may intend to honor the memory of these people, some of whom died in the War for Independence.

I’d say there is legitimacy to that point of view. HOWEVER, Varadkar is choosing to include the commemoration of the RIC and the DMP as part of the Decade of Centenaries, which is designed to honor the fight for Irish independence. This choice is definitely strange.

I recommended on Twitter yesterday that, instead, Ireland/Varadkar/Fine Gael consider instituting akin to the German Volkstrauertag, a day that remembers the war dead from all nations around the world, including victims of violent oppression. Such a day of remembrance could include the RIC and DMP without giving them a place of honor alongside freedom fighters such as Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Pearse, Connolly, et al. Surely we can all agree that the RIC and the IRB were not morally equal forces in Irish history, right?

There’s one other important issue to consider here: the on-going fight for Irish unity. Remembering the RIC and DMP is some fashion could be extremely meaningful to Unionists. Will Unionists have a place in a future 32-county republic? Will their history be honored in a unified Irish state? Will their ancestors have a place in how Irish people learn about their history, and what will that place be? We have an obligation to remember the past as it was, and to attempt to have empathy for historical actors. We can recognize that individual members of the RIC/DMP, forces of the British government in Ireland, were bad people who committed atrocities against Irish people– because that is the truth. But that wasn’t true of all members of these forces. To see these people as a monolith is an inappropriate black-and-white view of history, which really exists in infinite shades of grey. If Unionists are to feel welcome in a united Ireland, we must find a way to include their history in a way that doesn’t condemn all Unionists and their ancestors in the way that we characterize Nazis (why which I mean all members of the NSDAP).