Last year, in 2019, there was in Britain a considerable amount of media coverage of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Usually the protesters were praised, while the police who faced them were criticised as oppressive, but fifty-two years before, in 1967, there had been similar protests and repression. At that time, however, Hong Kong was run as a British colony and then it was the protesters who were condemned and the police who were praised.

Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain after the First Opium War in 1842 and the Hong Kong Police Force was established two years later, with upholding British control as its main task. In 1966 a number of labour disputes escalated into large-scale protests against British colonial rule, which lasted throughout the next year and, after 51 deaths and over 800 injured, a number of social reforms were introduced and the protests gradually ended. Two years later, for their role in curbing the protests, Queen Elizabeth bestowed the ‘Royal’ title on the police – making them the Royal Hong Kong Police Force (RHKPF).

From Tudor times the state in Britain had gradually been constructed into a fiscal system capable of financing the building of an empire on a world scale. Later, global profiteering, including the slave trade and going to war to force drugs (opium) on China – aligned with commerce and taxes, especially on income – provided the surplus money that financed the technological advances of the industrial revolution and led to the expansion of the British Empire.

Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’, published in 1776, had argued for a policy of government non-interference in economic affairs and for giving free rein to the ‘magic hand of the market’, which was to be applied ruthlessly both at home and abroad. The administration of government, centred in Whitehall since the 16th century, was modernised after the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1845, which extensively increased the number of civil service mandarins and their departments.

In Britain and Ireland, the suppression of the democratic ideals thrown up by the French Revolution had culminated in the defeat of the United Irishmen. On the first of January 1801 the 500 year-old Irish parliament was dissolved and the Act of Union came into effect. A new flag, the Union Jack, was unfurled – which added the cross of Saint Patrick to those of Saint George and Saint Andrew. The Armed Forces of Britain would take this new symbol of empire to the far corners of the world, as they were used in a long series of engagements to extend the boundaries of British control.

The moves toward a laissez-faire (market-led and regulation-free pure capitalism) economic policy led to the Reform Acts, from 1832, which consolidated the hold of private enterprise over parliament, strengthening the middle class and gave ever-increasing power to the entrepreneurs. In Britain the rural poor and Irish emigrants, flocking into the greatly expanding industrial cities, worked long hours on starvation wages to facilitate the factories prolific output:

Divide and rule, both in Britain and overseas, was used to keep the masses divided and, while the rulers exploited cheap labour at home, plunder, combined with trade monopolies, became the order of the day abroad. At the height of the Empire, Britain, a small island, was ruling nearly a quarter of the world’s land surface and populations numbered in their hundreds of millions. Therefore, a system of enforcing control was initiated that was to include, not only the Army and Navy, but also a local force of colonial armed police – that later would include in Hong Kong the RHKPF.

The Testing Ground

Ireland, as was often the case, became the testing ground for this type of repressive rule and in 1812, Sir Robert Peel, after being appointed the Chief Secretary of Ireland, arrived in Dublin. At that time all of Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom, but there were frequent political protests and actions. Unlike Scotland and Wales, Ireland had never accepted English rule, or its incorporation into the UK, and the country was filled with barracks full of British soldiers.

Peel, a devotee of markets and the Empire, had become an MP in 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars, which were to end with the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Four years later, the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, saw voices for a more democratic society at home repressed. Peel was also a supporter of law and order having served part-time as a captain in the Manchester Regiment of Militia in 1808.

In Ireland the Army’s direct use of brute force was often proving to be counter-productive and hard to explain away. The troops were anyway continually required for wars in far off places and all this suggested that a new ‘policing force’, mainly drawn from the indigenous population, was required. An armed constabulary, which like the army would operate from fortified buildings and be under central control, but one that would be precise, disciplined and more politically acceptable than soldiers.

As communications improved, the truth was becoming harder to hide and greater efforts were required to provide explanations for the seemingly never-ending outbreaks of anti-government violence in Ireland. The British authorities, who were attempting to attribute all violent acts to ‘bandits’ and ‘outlaws’, considered that making a constabulary the prime upholders of ‘law and order’, rather than the army, could help to maintain this fiction. And therefore diminish potentially embarrassing political protests to issues of crime and criminality.

Peel, who was later to become the UK’s Prime Minister first in 1834/5 and again in 1841/6, initiated the first police service in both Ireland and England. There were, however, major differences in the set-up and running of the constabulary in each country. In Ireland Peel advocated setting up a countrywide police force and two years later the Peace Preservation Force was used for the first time in Middlethird, County Tipperary.

A county constabulary was later added, but the two forces were amalgamated as the Irish Constabulary (IC) in 1836 and brought under central control. Throughout this period, political developments often followed a familiar path, as constitutional politicians like O’Connell and Parnell waged campaigns for land reform and national rights. When peaceful requests, then protests, came up against a wall of hostility, intransigence and repression from the landlords and the British establishment, underground movements like the Young Irelanders and the Fenians emerged to carry on the struggle by violent means.

In 1867 Queen Victoria granted that the prefix ‘Royal’ be added to the name of the Irish Constabulary in recognition of the part the force had played in suppressing the Fenian movement:

‘For the Irish Constabulary, the Fenian uprising brought them unparalleled fame … In Adam’s Police Encyclopaedia the author had this to say: “On Friday, September 6, 1867, at the Constabulary Depot in Phoenix Park, in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant, the Marchioness (afterwards Duchess) of Abercorn attached with her own hands the medals, which were specially struck for the occasion, upon the breasts of those who had specially distinguished themselves. In addition to a medal some were given a sum of money, or a chevron” … Her majesty was “graciously pleased to command” that the force “be hereafter called the Royal Irish Constabulary” and “that they shall be entitled to have the harp and crown as badges of the force”.’

[The Irish Police, by Séamus Breathnach, Anvil Books 1974].

Operating from fortifications and under strict central control, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was developed as an armed coercive force furnishing the public face of colonial authority:

‘The RIC was from its outset to be controlled by Irish Protestants. It was responsible to the Irish authorities in Dublin who were Protestants or Anglo-Irish. Presumed to be the RIC’s chief challengers were Irish nationalists – mostly (though eventually not exclusively) Catholic – that is, not criminals but political militants.

By making control of Irish nationalism a police rather than a military affair, officials in Dublin and London could relegate the nationalists to the category of mere “bandits”. The challenge to state security could thus be understated. The use of “bandits” to describe insurgents so long as they were a matter for the police, became conventional in many British colonies which adopted the RIC model…’

[Ethnic Soldiers, by Cynthia H Enloe, Penguin Books 1980].

The Police in England

In 1829, after Peel had moved back to Westminster to become the Home Secretary, he initiated a Metropolitan Police force for London. And from the capital of the Empire, ‘British democracy’ was manifested as the model for any legitimate government. The ruling class, however, sought to maintain their dominance at home and abroad, so there was a crucial difference in Britain and Ireland between the ‘force and consent’ (using Gramsci’s characterization) needed to establish the ruler’s hegemony – and consequently how ‘law and order’ was applied.

Inside Britain, while the establishment ensured their interests predominated, Westminster promoted the concept that the state forces were neutral and acted in the interests of all the people. In fact, dissident voices and actions were categorised as being against the ‘national interests’ and ignored or crushed, but as the ruling elite established their dominance and authority, they did create a cohesive state system which most people gradually adhered to.

Following this pattern, the police in Britain developed as an area-based unarmed force which sought the consent of the people among whom they operated. There was a measure of local control over the police, who carried truncheons instead of firearms and whose main task became the prevention of crime (law). In the background were units like the Special Branch – initially formed in 1883 to combat Fenian bombings – and other paramilitary units with access to arms, whose main task was upholding the status-quo (order).

In Ireland, where the legitimacy of British rule was always suspect and never carried the moral authority of state rule back home, the emphasis between force and consent was very much the other way around. The RIC were centrally controlled, armed and acted mainly as a repressive force upholding British rule (order), with the prevention of crime (law) a secondary role.

In 1839, a Commission of Inquiry was looking into the setting up of a police force for England and Wales. After examining the police in Ireland the commission reported that:

‘The Irish constabulary force is in its origination and action essentially inapplicable to England and Wales. It partakes more of the character of a military and repressive force, and is consequently required to act in greater numbers than the description of force which we consider the most applicable, as a preventive force …’

[First Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire as to the best Means of Establishing an Efficient Constabulary Force in the Counties of England and Wales, 1839].

Views of Colonial Policing

In Ireland, the IC / RIC were recruited from areas outside of the populace they patrolled and they had more than double the numbers of personnel for the density of population than police forces in England. In 1847 an army veteran, Alexander Somerville, who had been flogged for writing a ‘seditious letter’ to a newspaper while serving with the Scots Greys, visited Ireland. Somerville, who came from a poor working class background, was especially incensed by the landlords:

‘A large number of the worst Irish landlords, Somerville believed, had “brought Ireland to a condition unparalleled in the history of nations.” As a class, he thought that they stood “at the very bottom of the scale of honest and honourable men.” Indeed, “the Irish landlord is only a rent eater, and his agent a rent-extractor, neither of them adding to the resources of the farm – not even making roads or erecting buildings”. While in England, rural depopulation was said to be due to the attractions of urban industrial employment, in Ireland such employment was unavailable, and “clearances” were forced, coercive and intolerable. Somerville complained of how the present time was an opportunistic one for evictions: “We have England paying out of English taxes all those armed men, and providing them with bullets, bayonets, swords, guns and gunpowder, to unhouse and turn to the frosts of February those tenants and their families”.’

[Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847, by Alexander Somerville – edited by K. D. M. Snell, Irish Academic Press 1994].

Somerville, noting that many of these armed men were police, wrote that: ‘One of the first things which attracts the eye of a stranger in Ireland … and makes him halt in his steps and turn round and look, is the police whom he meets in every part of the island, on every road, in every village, even on the farm land, and on the seashore, and on the little islands which lie out in the sea.’ Somerville continued:

‘These policemen wear a dark green uniform and are armed; this is what makes them remarkable, armed from the heel to the head. They have belts and pouches, ball cartridges in the pouches, short guns called carbines, and bayonets, and pistols, and swords.’

[Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847, by Alexander Somerville – edited by K. D. M. Snell, Irish Academic Press 1994].

  1. Garrow Green, an RIC cadet, wrote about his training and explained how it was like being in an army unit:

‘To readers unacquainted with the corps, I may say that it is a military police peculiar to Ireland, and officered in much the same way as the Army … I may say that the Royal Irish Constabulary Depot differs in no respect from an army infantry barracks …’

[In the Royal Irish Constabulary, by G. Garrow Green, Dublin 1905].

Continually fed information from a network of spies and informers the IC / RIC used this intelligence – combined with their local knowledge, which they augmented during policing (law) – to great effect during counter-insurgency offensives (order) against political opponents:

‘The fact is that the really effective influence upon the development of the colonial police forces during the nineteenth century was not that of the police in Great Britain, but that of the Royal Irish Constabulary … From the point of view of the colonies there was much attraction in an arrangement which provided what we should now call a “paramilitary” organisation or gendarmerie armed and trained to operate as an agent of the … government in a country where the population was predominantly rural, communications were poor, social conditions were largely primitive, and the recourse to violence by members of the public who were “against the government” was not infrequent. It was natural that such a force, rather than one organised on the lines of the purely civilian and localised forces of Great Britain, should have been taken as a suitable model for adaptation to colonial conditions.’

[The Colonial Police, by Sir Charles Jefferies, Max Parrish 1952].

Army Barracks, Police Forts & Famine

Throughout the nineteenth century there were barracks for British soldiers all over Ireland. Fermoy, built overlooking the Blackwater River in County Cork, was a huge barracks around which the town was built to service it. The largest garrison, the Curragh, was first established in 1646, built on a large plain near Kildare, the barracks occupied one side of the Dublin road with the race-track on the other.

Ireland became crisscrossed with large army barracks situated at strategic locations, and the smaller, but much more numerous, fortified buildings of the police. During the period of the famine there were 1,600 fortified IC bases throughout the country, situated in villages, towns and cities. Backed by soldiers when necessary, armed IC men assisted in enforcing evictions, protected landlords and their agents, and guarded the foodstuffs that were still being shipped abroad for profit.

An extensive prison network was also constructed, as the system of transporting prisoners was ending and by the time of the famine 26 new prisons had been built to augment the 18 already in existence. In these buildings political prisoners, especially, faced a harsh regime of control, punishments and forced-labour. In 1856, Frederick Engels visited Dublin and gave his view of the country:

‘Ireland may be regarded as England’s first colony … the so-called liberty of the English citizen is based on the oppression of the colonies. I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country and the sodden look of the Prussian gendarme is developed to its highest perfection here amongst the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.’

Thirty years later, in 1887, the poet Francis Adams also visited Dublin and recorded this image of the city in his poem: ‘Dublin At Dawn’:

In the chill grey summer dawn-light
We pass through the empty streets;
The rattling wheels are all silent;
No friend his fellow greets.

Here and there, at corners,
A man in a great-coat stands;
A bayonet hangs by his side, and
A rifle is in his hands.

This is a conquered city,
It speaks of war not peace;
And that’s one of the English soldiers
The English call “police”.

Throughout the British Empire there were corrupt and immoral political system and coercive rule. In both India and Ireland there were famines, brought on by the strident use of a market-led economic policy – during which the use of Colonial Police allowed acts of political protest to be depicted as ‘crime’. As over a million Irish people were dying from starvation and subsequent diseases, ships still left Irish ports laden with meat, flour, wheat, oats and barley – to sell for great profits on the market.

This pattern of the army, acting as back-up to a paramilitary police force, became the prototype for maintaining British rule in other parts of the Empire. Sir Robert Peel, who instigated the first police forces in Ireland and Britain, was later the British Prime Minister at the start of the Famine and the starving Irish people who received the attentions of Britain’s armed forces made little distinction between his police, who they called ‘Peelers’, and British soldiers. The nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell called him ‘Orange Peel’ and commented that Peel’s smile was ‘like the silver plate on a coffin.’

The Market & Coercive Policing

Located just a narrow strip of water away, it was inevitable that Ireland would become an early victim to English expansionism. While land and exploitation were the main motive behind the drive to subdue the Irish, there was also a second reason. In the past, O’Neill and Tone had forged links with England’s enemies, Spain and France, who had both landed troops in Ireland. This had fuelled England’s determination to subdue and control Ireland, to ensure it could never again pose a military threat.

William Cobbett, an ex-army sergeant-major, also thought that Britain’s security should be protected, but he knew that the use of repressive laws and military might in Ireland was wrong and counterproductive. He believed that ‘a real union of the hearts’ could be achieved between the people of Britain and Ireland if reason was used instead of force:

‘It is not by bullets and bayonets that I should recommend the attempt to be made, but by conciliation, by employing means suited to enlighten the Irish people respecting their rights and duties, and by conceding to them those privileges which, in common with all mankind, they have a natural and legitimate right to enjoy.’

[Not by Bullets and Bayonets – Cobbett’s Writings on the Irish Question 1795-1835, by Molly Townsend, Sheed and Ward Ltd 1983].

Cobbett, after leaving the British Army, had become a leading voice against injustice and for reform:

Cobbett’s appeals about Ireland fell on deaf ears and even a tragedy like the famine brought no change in policy. In 1846, a new Coercion Act designed to control possible insurrection by the starving Irish people was enacted. It was the eighteenth Coercion Act to be brought in since the 1801 Act of Union. As Lord Brougham remarked, the new bill: ‘Possessed a superior degree of severity’.

Pro-imperialist historians often brag that, at its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s land surface and contained a population of over 400 million. They neglect to tell us, however, that it was drug trafficking and the slave trade that helped put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain; or that the famines in Ireland and India, which caused millions of deaths, were the result of official callousness and subjugation, during the application of an unyielding political and economic ideology.

Under the oppressive control exercised through Britain’s Armed Forces and centrally controlled colonial Police Forces, profits had multiplied in the City of London during the Victorian heyday of the British Empire. While at home and abroad many ordinary people faced slavery, misery, starvation and death.

The Veterans of WW1

The last days of the Victorian era had seen Britain’s standing, as the premier world power, starting to decline – and it was the resulting rivalry between the core capitalist nations that led to two world wars. All over Europe, at the end of WW1, there were young men who had gone straight into the trenches and who knew no life save that of soldiers. Most of these demobbed veterans had served at the front and many of these men were left traumatised and brutalised by their experiences.

In Germany, some of these disillusioned veterans were recruited into the anti-revolutionary Freikorps (Free Corps) by their former officers, who now used these ex-soldiers to help crush the political left:

George L. Mosse, a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, wrote about these WW1 veterans:

‘There was no doubt a ruthlessness, a feeling of desperation, about some of these men who were unable to formulate effective political goals and who rightly or wrongly thought themselves abandoned by the nation whose cause they championed. The suppression of revolution in Berlin or Munich was accompanied by brutal murders, and such murders continued even after the Free Corps had been disbanded, most often committed by former members of the corps. … The 324 political assassinations committed by the political Right between 1919 and 1923 (as against twenty-two committed by the extreme Left) were, for the most part, executed by former soldiers at the command of their one-time officers…’

[Fallen Soldiers, by George L Mosse, Oxford University Press 1990].

These veteran ‘new men’ saw themselves as continuing the comradeship established among the fighting men at the front. In Germany many demobbed veterans were later to join the Nazi Brownshirts of Hitler, himself a WW1 veteran. In Italy they marched on Rome with Mussolini and in Russia they fought on both sides in the civil war.

In 1916, during WW1, British Army firing squads had been busy in Ireland after frustrated Nationalists in Dublin had rebelled against British rule. Martial law was declared, the Easter Rising was crushed and military courts-martial sentenced 15 of the Irish leaders, including Pearse and Connolly, to be shot. Many of the other prisoners were deported to Britain and confined in special prison camps.

After the ending of WW1, in India and Ireland, the mass of the population had become increasingly hostile to British rule. In the UK there was a general election and the Sinn Féin party in Ireland won by a landslide there and started to set up a republican administration. This was banned by the British and many of the new Sinn Féin MPs were arrested and jailed.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) then began a campaign of armed resistance. Republicans, however, knew that they could not defeat Britain’s forces in battle – but set out to make the country un-governable instead. Michael Collins, using information from a network of agents inside the colonial administration, directed a ruthless and highly efficient campaign of guerrilla warfare – that proved difficult for the British forces to defeat.

As the conflict attracted international attention Britain realised that it was in danger of losing the propaganda battle, especially after the ‘Great War’ in which they had claimed to fight for ‘the rights of small nations.’ So, Britain refused to recognise the conflict as a war and, in an attempt to criminalise the freedom struggle, the RIC was increasingly used as the front-line force – with British soldiers, except in areas of high IRA activity, kept in the background.

In Ireland non-cooperation, coupled with small acts of sabotage, took place on a daily basis and the country became an armed camp. Dublin and other cities were patrolled by troops with fixed bayonets; many of the soldiers had fought in the ‘Great War’ and some said that service in Ireland caused them greater stress than life in the trenches. But within the RIC there were signs of even greater strain, both from moral pressure and the armed IRA attacks, which had caused heavy police casualties with 400 RIC men killed by the end of 1921, compared to 160 soldiers.

In Britain the politicians’ promises ‘to create a land fit for heroes’ for the returning fighting men had not materialised. As in the rest of Europe, they were left to cope on their own, as WW1 front-line veteran George Coppard explained:

‘I joined the queues for jobs as messengers, window cleaners and scullions … Single men picked up twenty-nine shillings per week unemployment pay as a special concession, but there was no jobs for the “heroes” who haunted the billiard halls as I did. The government never kept their promises.’

Instead, like in Germany and Italy some of Britain’s WW1 veterans were recruited again, but this time to fight against the Irish people who were seeking their independence. Rank and file ex-soldiers joined a unit nicknamed the Black and Tans, while a number of their former officers joined a more formidable force, the Auxiliaries. They were both ordered to serve in Ireland with the RIC, to add an extra-brutal physical-force element to their colonial policing operations.

The Black & Tans

The Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans, once recruited and trained, were shipped to Ireland and billeted in RIC barracks – to provide a cutting-edge for repressive operations. Before their arrival the RIC Divisional Commissioner for Munster, Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, had called his men to a meeting at the Listowel police barracks and told them that the British Government had instructed him to implement a new policy, which he enthusiastically outlined:

‘I am getting 7,000 police from England.

If a police barracks is burned, the best house in the locality is to be commandeered.

The police are to lie in ambush and to shoot suspects. The more you shoot the better I will like you … No policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.

Hunger strikers will be allowed to die in jail – the more the merrier.

We want your assistance in carrying out this scheme and wiping out Sinn Féin.’

Some policemen were against the coming of the Black and Tans and this new aggressive policy. About 500 RIC men tendered their resignations and some walked out after incidents in their barracks. Daniel Francis Crowley, who served in the RIC from 1914 to 1920, explained what happened at the Listowel barracks after Commissioner Smyth had given his men their new orders:

‘Sergeant Sullivan spoke immediately and said that they could tell Colonel Smyth must be an Englishman by his talk, and that they would not obey such orders; and he took off his coat and cap and belt and laid them on the table. Colonel Smyth and the Inspector, O’Shea, ordered him to be arrested for causing dissatisfaction in the force, but nineteen of them stood up and said if a man touched him, the room would run red with blood. The soldiers whom Colonel Smyth had with him came in, but the constables got their loaded rifles off the racks, and Colonel Smyth and the soldiers went back to Cork. The very next day they [the RIC men] all put on civilian clothes and left the barracks.’

[The Irish Police by Séamus Breathnact, Anvil Books 1974].

Many of the RIC men who tried to resign were intimidated, threatened and some were even whipped by the Black and Tans after they arrived. Crowley, who resigned ‘because of the misgovernment of the English in Ireland’, fled the country under Black and Tan threats after his friend Constable Fahey was shot by them. Despite the disaffection within the RIC the ‘new policy’ was quickly put into operation and aggressive actions were launched against the Irish people, with ‘martial law’ declared in areas thought to be sympathetic to the IRA and Sinn Féin:

‘Perhaps the biggest single act of vandalism committed in Ireland by British forces, including the police, took place on 11-12 December 1920, when Cork city’s centre was sacked and burned … Cork, of course, was only one of many areas to suffer under the policies which motivated police and military excesses. Florence O’Donoghue noted that in ‘one month these “forces of law and order” had burned and partially destroyed twenty-four towns; in one week they had shot up and sacked Balbriggan, Ennistymon, Mallow, Miltown-Malbay, Lahinch and Trim …’

[The Irish Police by Séamus Breathnact, Anvil Books 1974].

The Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries became a law unto themselves and went on to gain notorious reputations for waging a campaign of British state-terrorism against the Irish people. Their activities are still remembered in Ireland and rebel songs are still sung about them:

The Connaught Rangers Mutiny

During Victorian times, as more and more soldiers had been required to conquer and subdue for the ever expanding Empire, many had came from previously colonised peoples – including the Welsh, Scottish and Irish. Thomas Macaulay, an historian and Whig politician, writing about the pay of the British soldier said that: ‘it does not attract the English youth in sufficient numbers; and it is found necessary to supply the deficiency by enlisting largely from among the poorer population of Munster and Connaught.’

Most of the British Army’s Irish regiments were named after their unit’s catchment areas, like the Connaught Rangers, the Munster Regiment, the Dublin Fusiliers and the Leinster Regiment etc. In India in 1920, the 1st Battalion of the Connaught Rangers were serving at Wellington Barracks at Jullundur in the Punjab. Most men of this Irish regiment of the British Army were WW1 veterans and some became disturbed by accounts of the Anglo / Irish conflict – the activities of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, reported by family and friends back home, became especially resented.

These feelings came to a head when a number of the troops refused to ‘soldier on’ till the Black and Tans were removed from Ireland. The colonel called a parade and made an emotional appeal to the mutineers, recounting the many battle honours won by the regiment, who were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own.’ At the end of his speech Private Joseph Hawes stepped forward and spoke: ‘All the honours on the Colours of the Connaught Rangers are for England. There is none for Ireland, but there is going to be one today, and it will be the greatest honour of all.’

It was just over a year since the Amritsar Massacre and some of the men were sympathetic to the Indian independence movement. They felt that they were being used to do in India what other British forces were doing in Ireland. To ensure that their protest would be noticed, the men took control of their barracks. Some wore Sinn Féin rosettes on their army uniforms and the Union Jack was lowered and an Irish tricolour, made from cloth some soldiers had purchased from the local bazaar, was flown instead. The first time the flag of the Irish Republic had been raised abroad.

The Connaught Rangers’ mutiny was put down when the men were surrounded by other army units, arrested and then court-martialled. During the trial Sergeant Woods from England, who had joined in with the men, was asked why events in Ireland should have affected him. Woods, who had won the DCM in France, replied, ‘These boys fought for England with me, and I was ready to fight for Ireland with them.’

Sixty-one men were convicted of mutiny and fourteen were sentenced to death – only one was executed, however, and the sixty other soldiers received long terms of penal servitude. On 2nd November 1920, 22 year-old Private James Daly, who had led an unsuccessful assault on the armoury at Solon in which two of his comrades had been killed, was shot by an army firing squad. He is still remembered in Ireland:

While in India, some of the veterans convicted of mutiny were savagely beaten by NCOs of the Military Provost Staff Corps while in military prison. Then, handcuffed and in leg-irons, they were sent by train to the coast, to await a ship to England where they were expected to complete their sentences. As they boarded a troopship: ‘A curious crowd of both Indians and Europeans watched their embarkation from the quay side, and to these, the men of The Rangers addressed ironic shouts of: “Freedom for small nations? See what you get for fighting for England”!’

[Mutiny for the Cause, by Sam Pollock, Leo Cooper Ltd 1969].

From Dublin to Jerusalem

The British authorities had thought that the policy of using the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries was killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand it rid British society of a possible source of trouble – disaffected veterans – and on the other, pitched them into direct conflict with another more pressing problem – the rebellious Irish. Their aggressive actions in Ireland, however, had greatly increased IRA support, rather than removing it.

In the end, as the war in Ireland ended in stalemate and compromise, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries were pulled out in disrepute. In June 1922, the Connaught Rangers and three other Irish British Army regiments, recruited from areas that were now part of the new Irish Free State, were disbanded. The mutineers were released from jail a year later. Joseph Hawes, a Connaught Rangers WW1 veteran, who was one of those imprisoned for mutiny, later said:

‘When I joined the British Army in 1914, they told us we were going out to fight for the liberation of small nations. But when the war was over, and I went home to Ireland, I found that, so far as one small nation was concerned – my own – these were just words.’

Britain was forced to withdraw from most of Ireland, but held on to six of the nine counties of Ulster – by partitioning Ireland and creating Northern Ireland. In which, after 1969, several new decades of ‘The Troubles’ were to reoccur. The use of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans in Ireland was an early example, in the modern age, of an imperial powers using special units, outside of the usual command structure, in an attempt to intimidate a population. Foolishly, rather than learn the lesson from Ireland – that oppression often breeds resistance – this practice, of using special units to carry out state-terrorism, would be used more and more in future conflicts.

After being used as fodder for the guns in the ‘Great War’ and then sent to Ireland to fight the Irish, many former veterans and next Black and Tans, or Auxiliaries, were then re-recruited again and sent to Palestine to reinforce the Colonial Police there. Operating under Britain’s Palestine Mandate and the Sykes / Picot Agreement of 1916, from which Britain and France had carved up the territories of the former Ottoman Empire.

Douglas Valder Duff was a WW1 navy veteran, who served with the Black and Tans in Ireland. Afterwards, in 1922 Duff joined up for the Palestine Police Force and, following his promotion to Inspector, he gained a fearsome reputation for applying excessive brute force against the local inhabitants, which became known as ‘duffing-up’ among his fellow members in the Security Forces. Many of today’s upheavals in this area of the world can be traced back to this period and the colonial political double-dealing, coupled with the brutal armed actions of Britain’s colonial police and soldiers at that time.

Forging our Own Chains

Just over two decades after the end of the ‘War to end all Wars’ the world was at war again. The great shock and loss felt by many people after WW1, plus the economic ‘Great Depression’ a decade later, had led to attempts to moderate the effects of aggressive market-led capitalism. In the US Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Keynesian Welfare State, implemented by the Labour Government in the UK after WW2, were examples of this.

This more caring form of capitalism, with its NHS in Britain, started to create a more equal society at home, but it was never applied overseas. By the end of WW2 the USA was established as the world’s leading capitalist power and, after unleashing a ‘Cold War’ against the communists, they also undertook many actions to dominate global resources. Across the world numerous democratically elected governments were ousted by US organised coups d’état, including Iran in 1953, the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1961, Brazil in 1964, Indonesia in 1967, Bolivia in 1971 and Chile in 1973.

Meanwhile, a subordinate and almost bankrupt UK was squeezing its remnants of Empire for more profit, while trying to combat, or at least control, the mounting demands for freedom from colonial rule. Alongside the British Army, colonial Police Forces played a major suppressive role in places like Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya and Aden. Although Westminster claimed their forces were ‘peace keepers’ amid ‘bandits,’ ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’, in reality it was a callous process – red in tooth and claw – with free-fire zones, shoot-to-kill squads, brutal prison camps and massacres.

Throughout the ‘Emergency’ in Malaya, for instance, the build up of the Security Forces was on such a large scale that the British Survey of June 1952 stated that: ‘In some areas there is an armed man to police every two of his fellows, and more than 65 for every known terrorist …’ At that time Malaya was producing over a third of the World’s natural rubber and, in 1948, soldiers of the Scots Guards had rounded-up and killed 24 unarmed villagers on a rubber plantation near Batang Kali. As news of the massacre leaked out, the authorities claimed that the victims were ‘bandits’ and ‘terrorists’, who had been shot trying to escape.

In 1953 the High Commissioner of Malaya, General Sir Gerald Templer, stated in his yearly report that a ‘main weapon in the past four years has been … the sevenfold expansion of the Police …’ And Victor Purcell, a former colonial civil servant, observed: ‘There was no human activity from the cradle to the grave that the police did not superintend. The real rulers of Malaya were not General Templer or his troops but the Special Branch of the Malayan Police.’

In 1969, two years after the last British troops were withdrawn from Aden, soldiers were ordered out onto the streets of Derry in Northern Ireland and another round of ‘The Troubles’ started. The colonial policing role had been passed on from the RIC to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), with King George V, in 1922, granting the force the ‘Royal’ prefix. The RUC were armed and operated from fortified buildings and their personnel were nearly 100% Protestant.

In 1969 the RUC had numbered around 3, 000, a decade later they had a combined strength of 11,500 with 7,000 regulars and reserves of 4,500. A number of RUC special units were also set up, with some being trained for shoot-to-kill operations by the SAS. Others, like the Black and Tans before, became a law onto themselves – with some colluding covertly with Loyalist paramilitaries.

Back in Britain, during the Miners Strike in 1984, police from various areas of the country were organised as a militia against the strikers – in a modified form of what was already occurring in the North of Ireland. Many of the Security Services other covert procedures from ‘Ulster’ were also used, like surveillance, phone tapping and the use of agents, informers and provocateurs. Combined with the media smearing the strikers and the justice system criminalising them, all of this helped to ensure the downfall of the Miners.

A century before, Karl Marx had been a critic of British rule in Ireland and in 1870 he’d observed that: ‘Ireland is the only excuse of the English Government for maintaining a big standing army, which in case of need they send against the English workers, as has happened after the army became turned into praetorians in Ireland …’ Marx meant this as a warning and his words were later shortened into: ‘A nation that oppresses another forges its own chains’.

Once again, over a century later in the 1980s, the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Falklands, plus the defeat of the mineworkers, were key elements in enabling the ‘Iron Lady’ and her Tory Government to establish Neoliberalism in the UK. The downfall of the Miners was aided by methods and stratagem developed during military operations in the North of Ireland and the defeat of the strike weakened the power of the Trade Unions. All of which was used to facilitate the overthrow of the Keynesian economic system and see it gradually replaced by market-led and regulation-free pure capitalism.

Thatcher’s coming also saw individualism lauded, while communities and unions were denigrated, as this new, more virulent, form of capitalism was established:

Neoliberalism has seen a return to an exploitative word-wide market-led system, which is every bit as immoral and vicious as laissez-faire was in the past. Removing the regulations from financial businesses caused the banking crisis in 2008, which affected – and with its accompanying austerity still affects – everywhere and everyone. In both rich and poor countries divide and rule has returned in full throttle, setting ‘us’ against ‘them’ and vice versa – causing disarray among the many, to the benefit of the few.

Across the world raw materials are extracted and used solely for profit, with no thought given to people, or the environment. The inhabitants of poorer countries find themselves trapped by corrupt governments with starvation wages and adverse working conditions. Many die every year trying to migrate to the richer west, with some trying criminal traffickers – only to find they are enslaved for the sex-trade, or labour gangs.

To uphold the retrenchment of a market-led system, new forms of imperialism are used and the use of the Armed Forces and coercive policing has again become the norm. And now, around the world, strongman leaders abound, often turning to neo-fascist traits and a revived nationalism to stay in power. However, those in whose interests Neoliberalism is imposed are in numbers very much lesser than those it is inflicted on.

So, perhaps the biggest question we all need to ask ourselves is: ‘Why do we allow this type of political and economic system to be dumped on us over and over again?’ Neoliberalism, like laissez-faire in the past, is elitist and un-democratic and seeks to control our lives. It requires repressive policing just to keep it afloat and while it remains, although profits multiply in the pockets of the few, for the rest of us – the vast majority both at home and abroad – we continue to face conflicts, declining living standards, environmental destruction, subjugation, misery, starvation and death.


Information compiled and written by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served in the British Army for 8 years in the 1960s.

Suggested Further Reading:

On the Peterloo Massacre:

On the Victorian Expansion of Empire:

On William Cobbett:

On the Amritsar Massacre:

On the ‘Emergency’ in Malaya and the Batang Kali Massacre:

On neo-colonisation and military coups:

For a fictionalized account about how the Neoliberal economic and political system came to dominance in the UK read ‘Gangrene’, which can be obtained from VFP at:










  1. Ged Murphy says:

    a timely article … for any Irish readers. Due to related having “kicked-off” this month in Ireland. The Dublin FG Gov & minister for justice, proposed the RIC be included in commemorations for their war of Independence. Republicans and their historians went ape.
    The official titles of the two most despised ‘police’ elements were: RIC Special Reserve: nickname “Black & Tans”
    Auxiliary Divison RIC: best known as “Auxies”
    Niether were part of the army and had been created personally, out of ex-western front vets, by Churchill & Co. to avoid calling the conflict a “war”. On paper both their roles were to ‘assist’ the RIC as ‘special constables’. Needless to write, their recent experience; and weaponry; in the trenches of Flanders was how they ‘assisted’.
    Aly makes the very cruical point, that this RIC model was exported over all ‘troublesome’ colonies using natives themselves as enforcers, with the predictable fatal consequences in both dead locals and home born “cops”.

  2. Fiona Gallagher says:

    What an amazing piece of writing.
    As a proud Irish woman who lived through the decades of murder and conflict here in the north of Ireland , I have to say reading this made me very emotional.
    Derry is my hometown and I know all to well how deep the scars run, even til this day. We mostly try to move forward but there is still the enduring sense of injustice and always having to battle the ignorance and misinformed people, it can be exhausting. I for one have never understood what was great about Britain. .all I ever knew and experienced was oppression and violence.
    Aly your article is well informed and researched. And it was refreshing to read.
    Colonial policing is still alive and well I believe. . I think it’s time Britain removed itself from everyone else’s countries. Not just the EU.

  3. Adrian Walker says:

    Fascinating reading. Thanks.

  4. David Westgate says:

    A very useful account by virtue especially of its wide historical perspective, but tragically relevant now.

  5. les havell says:

    without sounding like … ‘ Mr Burns ‘ …. excellent

  6. DavidMarchesi says:

    another excellent contribution from Mr Renwick, telling the stopeoples- all, of coursery as it is/was. To be hoped that all VFP members willpick up the lessons from this and try to engage others in proper consideration of the history of the British Empire. An observer of the Itrish scene wrote in the 1930’s that the English can’t quite recall what the Irish can never forget. No decent person should want to “forget”/ deny the truth of the UK’s oppression of other peoples. All, of course, in the interests of the ruling classes,including those of the colonies.Irish landlords in the Famine were as bad as their absentee English fellows, showing a lack of humanity which shouldmake one’s blood boil, even at this distance in time.

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