The Police State –Lessons from the Past       by Joe McVeigh


The late Fr Des Wilson, who taught for almost 20 years in St Malachy’s College, used to tell a story about a former student in the 1950s. By all accounts, he was a serious student interested in Latin, Greek and philosophy. One day in the 1950s 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 Christ. The student was immediately arrested and taken to an RUC Interrogation Centre for further questioning.  He was brought 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 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 classical scholars with contempt. The RUC had been given draconian powers by the Orange-Unionist government to deal with suspects. A former minister from apartheid South Africa envied the legal powers given to the RUC.

 I am sure there are many other stories that could be told about the activities of the RUC in intimidating and harassing citizens who were suspected of being disloyal and subversive.

Another story that comes to mind is about the RUC based in Kesh in my own native parish of Ederney-Culmaine in north Fermanagh. The most noteworthy event connected with the parish occurred in May 1868 in London when a man by the name of Michael Barrett was executed. Michael was a native of the Ederney parish and had emigrated to Glasgow around 1850. There he became associated with the Fenian movement. However, in 1867 he was arrested and accused of causing an explosion at Clerkenwell prison in London. Throughout the trial Michael protested his innocence. It became clear during the trial that he had been named by an agent from Dublin whom he did not know. Michael pleaded not guilty and presented alibis from Glasgow who swore that he was in Glasgow when the explosion at Clerkenwell 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. Public hangings were abolished shortly afterwards.

On the one hundred anniversary of his execution on 26 May 1968, the well- known local politician, Cahir Healy, wrote an article about 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 sometimes used to describe nationalists or Fenians as ‘Micks’.

At the end of his article in the Fermanagh Herald in 1968, Cahir Healy referred to Michael’s nearest relatives who were still living in the house in which he was born in a townland near Montiagh -a few miles from the village of Kesh. The week after the article about Michael Barrett was published 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 to Cahir Healy!” The intimidation worked.

In 1968, some months after the article about Michael Barret appeared in the Fermanagh Herald, the Civil Rights campaign began throughout the six counties.

The northern statelet was exposed as completely corrupt, intolerant and sectarian. The RUC continued to behave as a paramilitary force within the police state –engaging in murderous activity against people they considered enemies of the state. It took many more years and much pain and suffering to bring about an end to the RUC and the intimidation of the Catholic working class.  We have come a long way since then. We still have a long way to go. It is important to remember. We must always be vigilant.

2 Responses to The Police State –Lessons from the Past       by Joe McVeigh

  1. Donal Kennedy April 17, 2024 at 11:14 am #

    History keeps repeating itself

    Just as Micheal Barrett was hanged ( in 1868) for an offence he was not guilty of

    Peter Barnes and James McCormick were hanged (in Birmingham in !940) for an explosion in
    Coventry (1939) which they had not caused.

    Re-reading Brendan Behan’s BORSTAL BOY lately, which referred to the “miscarriage of justice”
    in the latter case was re-echoed in the case of the Birmingham Six trial 34 years later.

    The Birmingham Six had false confessions beaten out of them, and one of them had an angry Alsation
    Dog placed in his cell.

    Police, judiciary and prison officers co-operated in a criminal conspiracy with British Cabinets.

    Lord Carrington, as Secretary for Defence,was responsible for tortures in the North of Ireland. In one case a prisoner, following “waterboarding” confessed to killing a paratrooper and was sentenced to death,but was reprieved and served 16 years in jail before his conviction was quashed on appeal.

    (As Foreign Secretary, Carrington told the world that the IRA represented nobody, followiing the
    election of IRA and INLA prisoners were elected to Parliamentay seats in two jurisdictions)

    Carrington never stood for election in his long life. His high offices were not the rewards of merit.
    He inherited a seat in the House of Lords on his 21st Birthday. Either his father or grandfather was
    a boyhood friend of King Edward VII and acted as a Pimp introducing him to an Actress, one of
    his stable of mistresses who attended his Coronation in Westminster Abbey in what the wits called

  2. Another Jude April 17, 2024 at 4:32 pm #

    These stories sum up the malign influence of Britain in Ireland over the centuries. The sooner their rule is ended the better it will be for all of us. Time is on our side.