The Force


(The Guardian 2000)

For the past 8 months, I have been trying to film the Royal Ulster Constabulary for a Channel 4 series. There were two main aims. To get an insider’s view of Northern Ireland’s painful transition towards peace and to chart the progress of the RUC, its operations and its characters during one of the most turbulent and difficult periods in the force’s eventful history. For the first few months they proved an elusive and uncooperative subject. But the flag war changed all that.

I had gone to Crumlin, a village twenty miles to the north of Belfast to film one of the 2,700 loyalist parades that take place during the marching season. On this occasion there was a twist to proceedings. A few hours before the loyalist marchers were due to walk, nationalists had put up the Irish tricolour along the parade route. The RUC had to make a difficult decision. If they didn’t take the flags down, loyalist thugs might cause trouble by coming into the village to take the flags down themselves. If RUC officers did pull the flags down they risked anger amongst the nationalist community and accusations of pro-loyalist bias.

They made what they thought would be the least explosive decision. Dressed in riot gear and backed up by armoured landrovers, the RUC moved into position to take down the flags. An angry crowd formed and jostling broke out. There was a stand-off. The RUC formed a line. Facing them was a crowd of protesters. At this point we were not quite sure how the RUC would react to our presence there. In the past, the police have been known to obstruct and jostle camera crews to stop them taking footage that might make the police look bad.

In keeping with one of the aims of the programme, we took up our position, standing with the RUC, trying to see what they saw, sandwiched between a crowd of angry nationalist demonstrators and smug loyalist marchers. It was a decisive but confusing moment for everyone there. The protesters looked at us, wondering what we were doing on the wrong side. Traditionally camera crews stand with them, looking at the menacing rows of armed police. The police officers also looked slightly bewildered. Normally they would be staring into a row of camera lenses, not alongside them.

There was jeering and jostling, a demonstrator tried to video a policeman, a scuffle broke out and the police wrestled the camera away, a loyalist marcher was ticked off by the RUC for provoking the nationalist demonstrators, abuse was hurled between the two communities, the demonstrators started up a chant of “SS RUC” and handed out placards calling for the disbanding of the force. For the next three hours, as the parade passed RUC officers were forced to stand between the marchers and the protesters, staring directly at placards calling for their own demise.

In the end, the loyalist parade, the nationalist demonstration and the RUC operation passed off relatively peacefully and in themselves did not make for spectacular footage. But what was unique and valuable was that we were able to get close enough to the RUC to show a view of Northern Ireland that is rarely seen on British television.

It was such a change from what had gone before. For the first three months when I turned up at RUC stations with a camera crew, the briefing rooms, CID offices and the canteens would mysteriously empty. Police operations, planned months in advance, would be cancelled at the last minute when officers knew that the cameras would be there. On one occasion, an Assistant Chief Constable was giving an important security briefing when he announced to his officers that they could leave the room if they didn’t want to be filmed. Within seconds the whole room had all but emptied, leaving me, the camera crew and a bemused Assistant Chief Constable.

Much of the concern was a genuine fear of being identified and targeted by terrorists. Since the terrorist campaign started, RUC officers have lived grouped together in suburban housing estates in areas where they feel safe. They go out drinking in carefully chosen pubs, keep their jobs secret from acquaintances, friends even family. They even have to be careful not to give their job away by hanging their uniform shirts on the washing line. No wonder then that the idea of showing their face on national television was terrifying.

But their fear of television was more than that. It was partly a fear of doing something wrong on camera or exposing themselves to ridicule. But what most fuelled it was the belief that the media and television in particular constantly misrepresented them. The most common complaint I heard during the eight months that I spent with them was that the RUC, as portrayed on television or in the papers, was not a force they recognised. They were constantly suspicious of the camera because they believed it was a tool which set out to attack them and distort their views.

Now I’ve whiled away interminable hours in patrol cars talking with officers as we waited for something to happen, listened to their theories about Northern Ireland’s future over an Ulster fry in RUC canteens, watched them on a routine patrol being stoned by nationalist thugs, and days later, at the Drumcree church parade, by loyalist thugs, sat in on training lectures where they are taught how to protect themselves from deadly blast bombs, and listened to them and their families talking about what effect the Patten report has had on morale and how isolated they feel from the rest of the community. What emerges is an unusual and fresh view of Northern Ireland. It’s a view that many in the community will automatically mistrust and reject because it comes from the RUC. But that’s where its value lies. It’s a glimpse of life from an unexpected angle that may give us a richer understanding of the situation.

Tim Pritchard’s series on the RUC, The Force, was shown on Channel 4 on 11th and 18th March 2000.

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