The Police State NI    by Joe McVeigh


Fr Des Wilson, who taught for almost 20 years in St Malachy’s College, used to tell a story about a student in St Malachy’s –in the 1950s. By all accounts, he was a serious student interested in Latin and Greek. Anyway, one day on his way home from University he was stopped and searched by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). He had in his school bag a copy of a book called ‘The Republic’. It was written by a fella called Plato who lived in Greece 300 years before Jesus. The student was immediately arrested and taken to Castlereagh Interrogation Centre for further questioning.  He was taken to court and charged with having in his possession subversive literature. He received a warning from the judge and released with a caution.

Des Wilson often told this story about the classical scholar to remind people about the corrupt nature of the statelet set up in the northeast of Ireland in 1920 –a state that treated Catholics and poor people and scholars! with contempt. I am sure there are many other stories that could be told about the activities of the state police in intimidating and harassing citizens who were suspected of being disloyal and subversive.

Another story that comes to mind is about the RUC in my own native parish of Culmaine in north Fermanagh which includes three villages Kesh, Lack and Ederney. The RUC had a barracks in Lack and one in Kesh -but none in Ederney. There was never much trouble in any of these small villages or in the surrounding countryside. The only noteworthy event connected with the parish was the execution in May 1868 in London of a Fenian by the name of Michael Barret who was a native of the parish. Michael had emigrated to Glasgow around 1850 and became associated with the Fenian movement. However, in 1867 he was arrested and wrongly accused of an explosion at Clerkenwell prison in London. Throughout the trial Michael protested his innocence. It became clear that he had been named by a man from Dublin whom he did not know. The bomb at the prison was an attempt by the Fenians to release three of their leading men who were held in that prison.

 Michael pleaded not guilty and presented alibis from Glasgow who swore that he was in Glasgow when the explosion took place.  However, the Judge found him guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging. Michael made an unforgettable speech from the Dock before being taken to his cell. His was the last public hanging in England. A crowd of several thousand gathered at Newgate for the gruesome spectacle.

In May 1968, on the one hundred anniversary of his murder by the Crown, a well- known local politician, Cahir Healy, who lived in Enniskillen, wrote a tribute to Michael in the Fermanagh Herald. By this time, most people, apart from his immediate family, had forgotten all about him- though his first name was often used to describe more radical nationalists as ‘Micks’.

Cahir Healy at the end of his article referred to Michael’s nearest relatives who were still living in the house in which he was born in a townland  a few miles from Kesh. The week after the article about Barrett was published in the local paper in 1968, the RUC from Kesh barracks arrived at the house and searched it inside and out.

About 40 years later, around the year 2000, I began to research Michael’s story. I went to this family to see if they could provide me with any more information about Michael. The family refused to talk about Michael. “Not after what the RUC did to us the last time we spoke about him!” The intimidation worked.

In 1968, some months after the article about Michael Barret appeared in the Herald, the Civil Rights campaign began throughout the six counties. The RUC showed their true colours and the statelet was exposed as corrupt, intolerant and sectarian. That was the beginning of the end of the RUC and the Police state.  It is good to remember.


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