Measured approach needed to commemorations

The way in what should have been a straightforward debate on the role of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police a century ago has suddenly developed into an angry political row has been instructive.

It is worth noting that the Irish government’s advisory committee on commemorations initially and quite reasonably recommended an academic conference should examine the role of the two former police forces.

Instead, official plans were formulated for a much more elaborate ceremony which was scheduled to take place at Dublin Castle later this month.

Critics began to claim that the Irish state was somehow excusing the notorious activities of the auxiliary group which became known during the 1920s as the Black and Tans.

Organisers of the event robustly defended their approach, with increasingly sharp exchanges eventually involving both nationalists and unionists before the initiative was abruptly deferred.

By the stage when taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested that the controversy had pushed the entire prospect of a united Ireland further away, it was surely time for a degree of perspective to enter the proceedings.

If a properly organised seminar, with speakers drawn from a range of backgrounds, had considered the legacy of the RIC, it is difficult to believe that it would have been regarded as contentious in any quarter.

The agenda would certainly have included a discussion on how the 1920 Bloody Sunday attack by uniformed officers which killed 14 civilians at Croke Park in Dublin turned the tide of the War of Independence in favour of the IRA.

It would also have needed to look at the Listowel mutiny in Co Kerry earlier the same year, when RIC officers refused orders to confront republicans and some ended up switching sides in the conflict.

This would have been an entirely appropriate exercise which could have helped to enhance a wider understanding of the circumstances surrounding the disbandment of the RIC and its post-partition replacement by An Garda Síochána and the RUC.

Unfortunately, an impression was allowed to grow that formal parades and speeches at Dublin Castle would provide a distorted impression of a crucial period in our shared history.

It has been an episode which illustrates the sensitivities which surround many seminal events and the need for the authorities to offer a thoughtful and measured approach to all key anniversaries.