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Monday, 30 October 2017


A Force Like No Other
The real stories of the RUC men and women who policed the Troubles


Colin Breen
Blackstaff Press

Colin Breen writes: “A Force Like No Other is the frank and remarkable story of our everyday lives, of what it was like to be a cop: never hanging police shirts on the washing line; lying to children and friends about the job; checking over your shoulder and looking under your car for bombs; always on the alert for things out of place. At times it stretched us to breaking point.”

In the 1960s/70s, growing up as I did in an area of Belfast labelled as Catholic, Nationalist, Republican, or all three, even someone apolitical would have been hard-pushed not to be very wary of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) or even harbour extreme hatred for them, their uniforms and their history of perceived or actual bias in favour of Protestant, Loyalist and Unionist agendas. The RUC was a hero organisation to some and a villainous one to others, not an unusual state of affairs in a land of multiple conflicts. Various official reports over the years have exposed and emphasised many negative aspects of the RUC and what a controversial and skewed force it was before being reorganised and rebranded as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2001.

Whatever the broader, general analysis of RUC history tells us, to my knowledge, little has been heard from individuals describing what it was like to go to work as a police officers during the Troubles, the pressures on them and their families and how they coped with atrocities and the constant threat of assassination. This book collects the personal stories of RUC personnel in their own words and brings to the fore the human side as never before. Sure there were bad apples but there were also many more genuine law-abiding people out there doing a job of work, trying to earn a crust, trying to do the right things.

“In 1983, Interpol named Northern Ireland as the most dangerous place in the world to be a police officer. The figures bear that out: between 1969 and 2001, 302 RUC officers were murdered, and over 10,000 were injured, 300 of them left disabled or seriously injured. Almost 70 officers committed suicide.”

The stories, pretty much written as told to the author, are compelling. I was bracing myself for a rather turgid history of a police force. But this is far from it. There are grim details of brutal crimes and descriptions of emotional responses to horrendous incidents. There are recollections of policing terrorism and dealing with hard-nosed thugs as well as more mundane and, for want of a better word, normal crimes like burglary, and accounts of procedural obstacles, judicial inconsistencies and political interference. But Northern Ireland being Northern Ireland, lighter moments shine out of the darkness. There is much humour in the memories including a story about Elvis Presley and another about an officer fancy-dressed as a nun.

But the overwhelming feelings I had when I finished the book were ones of admiration and respect for police officers doing a lottery of a job, never knowing what each day or what hour of each day would throw at them – snipers, booby traps and all manner of mayhem and madness, and whether their families would see them return home unscathed.  Even years after retirement, many officers still suffer nightmares and stress-related conditions.

Colin Breen, a former officer, has done a remarkable job here in gathering stories that reflect the human side of the RUC. It is an honest book, sometimes chilling, sometimes emotional, sometimes funny and it deserves its place in Northern Ireland’s history, offering perspectives that we don’t often hear above the noise of the egos in the upper echelons of authority.

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