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Police have paid a heavy price in our times

(, Irish News)

Yesterday's (Sunday) National Police Memorial Day was marked by a service in Belfast's Waterfront Hall for policemen and women killed or who died in service throughout the United Kingdom including Ireland when the whole island was part of the UK.

Our image of the police is shaped by community experiences, by direct contact and through the media.

My earliest memories suggest that police officers were feared rather than respected. No police lived in our area but two B Specials lived nearby. One of their sons resented me calling his dad a B Special and insisted that he was a policeman.

The other B man was an officer and considered a cut above the rest of us because his home had a bathroom and he was a local councillor. The B men were sometimes seen as a kind of Dad's Army but in other parts as effective protectors of the community.

Once when some of us were in the lower Falls a scuffle took place involving a policeman. A woman tried to restrain a man from attacking the policeman and was heard shouting, "He's not a B Special, he's a policeman".

This taught me that differences existed between the two organisations.

After my dad's death I discovered his C Special membership card dated July 4 1922 but he had never talked much about this.

'Saved' policemen gave their testimonies at our mission hall but they seemed different from other policemen for whom my feelings of unease remained.

This was reinforced when I read about an English born-again prisoner whose experiences made it impossible for him to believe that any policeman could be straight.

After Paisley and others were released from prison in the 1960s one Church minister at a rally near Dundonald referred to the RUC as "Devils".

Rumours circulated about the police planting false evidence in loyalist homes to bolster chances of conviction. Friends from the lower Shankill said the police had always been unpopular. In the 1970s a loyalist friend told of his hatred for the police who, when he was a boy, beat him in custody for an offence he did not commit.

Later a respected evangelical preacher told us we should never tell the police we were on holiday lest they steal our possessions.

In the 1980s direct contact convinced me that corruption existed within the RUC.

However by the mid 1990s I had reason to be grateful to the police. Local lads had stolen my car from Clonard Monastery. The RUC quickly found it and collected me at a very late hour. As I hesitantly got into the back of the Landrover a cheery voice said: "Hello Mr Garland". It was a former student. He drove me through the dark streets to where my damaged car sat tightly against a wall. Local kids stood uneasily nearby and I expected stone throwing at any moment but a policeman showed me how to start the engine despite the damaged ignition. Later at Springfield Road RUC Station I made out the shadowy forms of a troop of young soldiers in the darkness and my heart went out to them knowing the dangers they faced.

I have listened to stories of former policemen who suffered horribly at the hands of terrorists and last week I visited the RUC George Cross Memorial Garden at Knock and walked around the quiet memorial garden. Others pointed to names of relatives and friends among the hundreds indelibly recorded in hearts and in stone. A friend's dad remains angry that the RUC have been so badly misrepresented. Three hundred plus lives were lost and thousands have been terribly scarred both mentally and physically.

A heavy price was paid for policing this divided community and reforms seemed to demoralise and damage while nothing seemed to satisfy some of the critics. But it was factors beyond the control of the police that made their job so difficult. The divided nature of this society ensured that policing would be particularly contentious. It is now vital that we welcome and foster, while also constructively criticising, the new-style policing service. We need policing and yet we resent the police when they take unpopular measures. They will remain our scapegoats as long as we are divided and until we can move on as one community united in our diversity.

October 3, 2006
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This article appeared first in the October 2, 2006 edition of the Irish News.


This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News



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