Royal Irish Constabulary - History

History

The first organised police forces in Ireland came about through the Peace Preservation Act in 1814 for which Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850) was largely responsible (the colloquial name "Peeler" derives from his surname), and the Irish Constabulary Act in 1822 formed the provincial constabularies. The 1822 Act established a force in each province with chief constables and inspectors general under the control of the UK civil administration for Ireland at Dublin Castle. By 1841 this force numbered over 8,600 men. The original force had been reorganised under The Act of 1836, and the first constabulary code of regulations was published in 1837. The discipline was tough and the pay was poor. The police faced continual civil unrest among the Irish rural poor, and was involved in many bloody confrontations during the period of the Tithe War. Other deployments were against organisations like the Ribbonmen, which attacked landlords and their property and stock.

The new constabulary first demonstrated its efficiency against civil agitation and Irish separatism during Daniel O'Connell's 1843 “monster meetings” to urge repeal of the Act of Parliamentary Union, and the Young Ireland campaign led by William Smith O'Brien in 1848, although it failed to contain violence at the so-called "Battle of Dolly's Brae" in 1849 (which provoked a Party Processions Act to regulate sectarian demonstrations). This was followed by a period of relative calm.

The advent of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1858, brought a plan for an armed uprising. Direct action began with the Fenian Rising of 1867. Fenians attacked on the more isolated police barracks and smaller stations. This rebellion was put down with ruthless efficiency. The police had infiltrated the Fenians with local informers. The loyalty of the Irish Constabulary during the outbreak was rewarded by Queen Victoria who granted the force the prefix 'Royal' in 1867 and the right to use the insignia of the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick in their motif. The RIC presided over a marked decline in general crime around the country. The unstable rural unrest of the early nineteenth century characterised by secret organizations and unlawful armed assembly was effectively controlled. Policing generally became a routine of controlling misdemeanours such as moonshine distilling, public drunkenness, minor theft, and wilful property crimes. A Land War broke out in the 1879-82 Depression period causing some general unrest. In Belfast, with its industrial boom, the working population mushroomed, growing fivefold in fifty years. A lot of this was Catholic migration and there were serious sectarian riots in 1857, 1864, 1872 and 1886. As a result the small Belfast Town Police civic force was disbanded and responsibility for policing passed to the RIC.

From the 1850s the RIC performed a range of civil and local government duties together with their policing, integrating the constables with their local communities. By 1901 there were around 1,600 barracks and some 11,000 constables. The majority of constables in rural areas were drawn from the same social class, religion and general background as their neighbours. Strict measures were taken, however, to maintain an arms length relationship between police and public. A recruit was not permitted to serve in his home county or in the home county of his wife.

The task of enforcement of tens of thousands of eviction orders in rural Ireland caused the RIC widespread distrust among the poor Catholic population during the mid-nineteenth century. In the relative calm of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, the RIC won "grudging respect" from the population it policed. It was no less popular at home than any other police force.

The military ethos of the RIC, with its army terminology (the barracks, the carbines, and the emphasis on army style drill and smartness in dress) distinguished the force from civic police forces in the rest of the UK. The RIC wore a distinctive dark green uniform with black buttons and insignia, derived in style from the Rifle Brigade of the British Armed Forces.

The rank structure was paramilitary in nature, similar to that of the British Army of the period:

  • Inspector-General (insignia of a Lieutenant-General)
  • Deputy Inspector General (insignia of a Major-General)
  • Assistant Inspector General (insignia of a Brigadier-General)
  • Commissioner (insignia of a Colonel)
  • County Inspector (insignia of a Lieutenant-Colonel)
  • District Inspector 1st Class (insignia of a Major)
  • District Inspector 2nd Class (insignia of a Captain)
  • District Inspector 3rd Class (insignia of a Lieutenant)
  • Head Constable Major (insignia of a Warrant Officer)
  • Head Constable (insignia of a Warrant Officer)
  • Sergeant
  • Acting Sergeant (insignia of a Corporal)
  • Constable

During the 1907 Belfast Dock strike which was called by trade union leader Jim Larkin, the RIC mutinied after Constable William Barrett was suspended for his refusal to escort a traction engine driven by a blackleg carter. About 70% of the police force in Belfast declared their support of the strikers and were encouraged by Larkin to carry out their own strike for higher wages and a better pension. It never came to fruition, however, as the dissident policemen were transferred out of Belfast four days before the strike was to begin. Barrett and six other constables were dismissed and extra British Army troops were deployed to Belfast. The dock strike ended on 28 August 1907.

The RIC's existence was however increasingly troubled by the rise of the Home Rule campaign in the early twentieth century period prior to World War I. Sir Neville Chamberlain was appointed Inspector-General in 1900. His years in the RIC coincided with the rise of a number of political, cultural and sporting organizations with the common aim of asserting Ireland's separateness from England. The potential success of the third Home Rule Bill in 1912 introduced serious tensions: opponents of the Bill organised the Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913 while supporters formed the Irish Volunteers in response. These two groups had over 250,000 members, organized as effective private armies. In reports to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, and the Under-Secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan, Chamberlain warned that the Irish Volunteers were preparing to stage an insurrection and proclaim Irish independence. However, in April 1916 when Nathan showed him a letter from the army commander in the south of Ireland telling of an expected landing of arms on the southwest coast and a rising planned for Easter, they were both 'doubtful whether there was any foundation for the rumour'. The Easter Rising began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916 and lasted for six days, ending only when much of O'Connell Street had been destroyed by artillery fire. Although the Royal Commission on the 1916 Rebellion cleared the RIC of any blame for the Rising, Chamberlain had already resigned his post, along with Birrell and Nathan.

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