By Martin Galvin
It was a profoundly telling moment. Years earlier, Laurence O’Neill had pledged to resist British crown forces and remove British rule. He had risked much, suffered a fifteen year sentence in Long Kesh, and fought a hunger strike in 1972 against a British attempt at criminalization. He could name fellow Republicans murdered by the Royal Ulster Constabulary directly, or in collusion with pro-British loyalists or informer agents from within the nationalist community. He knew victims of Castlereagh torture and Diplock court perjury. He himself was tortured in Palace Barracks, Holywood, for 3 days and 3 nights, and had his eardrums burst when blanks were fired into his ears. He had been harassed for many years by the RUC, and 3 attempts made on his life were facilitated by the RUC. He had refused to be broken, silenced, or intimidated.
Now once more he was under threat because of opposition to the British constabulary. In Toome last week, that same pledge, principles and patriotism which had always inspired him, moved him to defy this latest attempt to silence him. Mr O’Neill stepped forward to the platform to stand against voting assent for the re-named crown constabulary and attempted to pull the movement to which he devoted so much back from the brink of becoming an apologist for the RUC-PSNI. Irish News reporter Catherine Morrison would describe the crowd’s reaction as a “rapturous reception” It was deserved. Truly no carefully constructed political rhetoric could have been as eloquent as the stand taken by Laurence O’Neill to just say no to the British constabulary.
He stood up as an independent Republican. Joining him in marshaling the case against the British constabulary were Francie Mackey, the leader of the thirty-two County Sovereignty Movement and Paul Little representing the Irish Republican Socialist Party. Their analysis was firmly grounded upon both Republican principles and pragmatic realities.
Francie Mackey analyzed the role of the RUC-PSNI in the context of British rule and the denial of national sovereignty. Slogans about nationalists accepting a police force but not British force, recited by rote in favor of embracing the PSNI, were nonsense. Republicans were being required to pledge public endorsement for a re-named RUC, the cutting edge of British oppression. This was and is a British force, imposing British rule by hauling Republicans they deem in violation of British laws before British courts.
Patten had explicitly rejected the formation of a new body to replace the constabulary which had murdered, tortured, perjured and colluded in order to enforce British rule upon unwilling Irish men and women. The name and uniform dress might be altered as a sop to ease the endorsement and assent of the Republican community.
Meanwhile PSNI recruits would be enlisted, officered, trained, and indoctrinated by those who had risen through the ranks of the RUC.A public pledge of acceptance of this force would betoken a whitewash of RUC collusion, shoot-to-kill, torture and criminalization.
Moreover, there would be a future dimension underpinning such a pledge. Republicans have long recognized that because British rule is founded upon injustice, further injustices such as sectarianism, repression, sham courts etc. were inherently necessary to prop-up that rule. It may serve British interests in the lead -up to enlisting Sinn Féin as a political cover, recruiter, and cooperator, to go softly. The history of British rule illustrates that once introduced and wedged in, repressive tactics will be extended.
What will be done by an emboldened constabulary after Sinn Féin has given its pledge of backing? Will a Sinn Féin minister of a crown force commanded by someone accountable only to the crown, have any real influence or will the presence of such a minister merely be used by the British for political camouflage ,and touted as tangible proof that even former Republican opponents now stand behind the RUC-PSNI ?
Paul Little also opposed any backing for the PSNI as a crown force which like crown courts would serve only the interests of the British crown. He expressed concern that any backing for the PSNI would co-opt Republicans and harness them into the very institutions they had vowed to replace.
Laurence O’Neill highlighted the fact that the PSNI was a re-named RUC and a tainted force which should not be accepted by Republicans.
However compelling, such arguments were preceded by damning and irrefutable evidence which was provided even before the debate began by the actions of the fourth participant in the debate, by the party he represented and by the British themselves.
Laurence O’Neill, a founding member of the Provisional IRA had merely called for an open debate on the issue of endorsing the PSNI, and urged Sinn Féin to give Republicans voters a platform to air their concerns. He attended meetings to arrange such a public and open debate.
A meeting was arranged for Conway Mill. It would be difficult to find a fairer or more respected sponsor for such a meeting than Fr Des Wilson or a more acceptable venue than Conway Mill. Here was Sinn Féin’s chance to reassure those Republicans prepared to just say no to any vote of approval for the British constabulary that all their legitimate objections and disagreements could be answered. Here was a gifted opportunity to show sincere Republicans who had metaphorically jumped -off the Sinn Féin bus, that the party drivers had not diverted to a completely different and unwanted destination If Stormont and backing the British constabulary were truly some purgatory to be suffered briefly before entering a united Ireland, many would swallow their doubts, and be reassured . Here was a platform to show that the fears of Republicans like Laurence O’Neill were unfounded.
The fear of many of those who sought the debates was of course that Republican opposition will be bottled up inside a British Stormont administration with an institutionalized unionist veto wielded by Paisley, and that Stormont was a stepping- stone to nothing beyond cemented British rule. The fear was that endorsing the PSNI would be a final step down to the Kitsonian goals of Ulsterization, criminalization and normalization.
Sinn Féin has no shortage of spokespersons, like Declan Kearney, capable of defending his party position in an open debate. How many times did we read in the now defunct Daily Ireland or in the Andersonstown News that Sinn Féin longed to debate with the so-called dissident Republicans who were then misrepresented and dismissed as being unable to make any political case. There is an old saying about being careful what you wish for because you may get it and not enjoy the consequences.
Two days before the Conway Mill debate, Laurence O’Neill was confronted by men who ordered him not to attend. One of those who visited him, Declan Kearney, would represent Sinn Féin at both Conway Mill and Toome. Others would also be confronted and bullied. The heavy handed approach did not succeed against Mr. O’Neill and others. On the night of the Conway Mill debate it was unclear whether the party would participate. It is believed by many in attendance that the size of the crowd forced Sinn Féin to come forward.
No one imagines that Declan Kearney acted on his own. The decision to attempt to intimidate Mr. O’Neill and others would have been discussed and decided formally within the party structure.
If Sinn Féin truly believed that backing the RUC- PSNI following a pre-determined Ard Fheis vote, would serve Republican rather than British interests, why send members to threaten Laurence O’Neill and others. During the years of Section 31 RTE and BBC censorship, Republicans rightly contended that censorship was a tacit admission that British rule could not withstand a full and open debate. Did not the attempts to intimidate and silence Mr O’Neill, show that the party fears a full and open debate?
It is ironic that those so anxious to engage with the British, DUP, PUP or Fine Gael would feel it should respond to an invitation to debate fellow Republicans with threats and intimidation.
Perhaps one particular moment of the Conway Mill debate reveals the basis of their concerns. Declan Kearney at one point asked rhetorically whether we are closer to a united Ireland and then answered in substance that of course we were. The claim drew loud calls derision. As one person in attendance described it, he looked “gobsmacked.”
Clearly, this was the sort of hollow saying or slogan which might be applauded uncritically by a coterie of supporters or a gerrymandered party meeting. Before an assembly of thinking and questioning Republicans, there was not even a weak attempt to make reasoned explanation why embracing Stormont and the RUC-PSNI had brought us closer to ending rather than to cementing British rule.
Clearly the pledge of backing for the RUC-PSNI was conceded years ago and was part of the package of concessions offered to Trimble. Paisley had pocketed those submissions for a start and demanded much more as part of the price of sitting in a Stormont headed by him. No realistic observer imagines that the British have been negotiating for an Ard Fheis that could vote no to the RUC-PSNI. Claims that nothing had been decided within the party were ludicrous. A public debate in which veteran Republicans like Laurence O’Neill could vote no, might place the party in a position where it could not deliver on concessions already promised to the British.
Meanwhile the British were illustrating on several fronts that while the uniform insignia might be changed, the British crown constabulary remains much the same. In Belfast, the Diplock court trial of Republican Sean Hoey was an indictment of the RUC- PSNI and any Republican who might pledge it fealty. Here was an important case with top ranking RUC now PSNI members in the witness box. In the past, top crown constables felt it fair game to beat a confession out of the Irish suspect then conspire to commit perjury and cover-up to jail the Republican for a lengthy sentence. Now the crown eschews torture with its inconvenient telltale signs. Instead these top-ranking constables merely planted DNA evidence, using black tape taken from his South Armagh home, and stuck the tape onto evidence collected from various scenes. They then concealed it by perjury and cover-up. Already a perjury investigation has been ordered by the Diplock judge. The ranking crown constable Baxter, directed to initiate the perjury inquiry is the very man named by subordinates as having solicited the perjury from the top.
Other planted DNA cases, including that of Mark Brogan and Martin Carroll have collapsed. No one has been demoted or prosecuted. The discredited case against Sean Hoey has been allowed to proceed. Already another Republican, Declan McGlinchey, whose family may have encouraged the Toome debate, has been picked up on discredited DNA evidence. Was this coincidence? Are the RUC-PSNI sending a message?
The post-Patten RUC has no more qualms about perjury, planted evidence and cover-up to jail suspected Republican opponents of British rule than the pre-Patten RUC. Is the relative silence about blatant miscarriages of justice from many quarters who loudly would have denounced such a conspiracy in the past a sign of what full cooperation and backing of the PSNI will entail?
In Derry, a white line picket for Republican political prisoners fighting criminalization at Maghaberry by the Republican Prisoners Action Group was photographed, harassed, and sympathizers intimidated. Attempts have been made to recruit Sinn Féin members to play a Denis Donaldson type role, informing and undermining the party from within. Again does the post-Patten RUC seem much different from the pre-Patten version?
The British have already marked off exceptions to the abolition of Diplock court trials that will allow them to use non-jury trials against Republicans simply upon a crown prosecutor’s request. A new measure on a parole board may be widened to abolish remission for political prisoners. The British clearly believe that new means of repression will be wielded in support of British rule in the future. Once Sinn Féin backing for the RUC -PSNI has been secured, will the RUC-PSNI feel emboldened to take the gloves off its fist of repression? Will Sinn Féin have become hostage to whatever injustices are meted by a crown force it has backed and endorsed in its campaign at the ballot box?
The debates will not be stopped. Already a number of questions have been answered irrefutably. There are Republicans who will just say no to backing the re-named RUC. They can and will debate an alternative strategy which begins with refusing allegiance to a British constabulary imposing British rule and law. The next step is to determine whether such Republicans can cooperate without any compromise of principle on this key issue. Can Republicans seize the Republican ground being left behind as Sinn Féin moves towards the British establishment? Can Republicans highlight the link between those who give fealty to the RUC-PSNI and the injustices committed by that force? Can Republicans, whose community has suffered so much at the hands of the RUC-PSNI, show the community that a vote of fealty for the RUC-PSNI in March will be touted as a whitewash of all that past injustice and viewed as a sign of willingness to suffer more? Can Republicans in unacceptable numbers just say no to the RUC-PSNI?