The controversy over whether or not there should be a commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) highlights a confusion around the nature of oppressive systems. Every such system tends to induce members of oppressed groups to act as agents of their own oppression. Often using a combination of bribery, threats and misinformation, people are persuaded to become part of the apparatus that holds the system of oppression in place. They become a visible face of the oppression and act as a buffer between the oppressed and the real oppressors.
There may be a variety of motives behind people agreeing to take on this role. For some, it may be opportunism or a way of escaping the worst effects of the oppression. For others, it may be a belief that they can do some good and even alleviate the effects of the oppression on others. Perhaps it is simply the desire to earn a living. Probably for some, the attraction of power over others helps compensate for their own feelings of inferiority or inadequacy. In general, huge resources go into playing on people’s emotions, inducing them to take on this work, and leaving them confused about the actual role they play.
The mistake that has been made in proposing to commemorate the RIC is that the focus is on the organisation rather than on the people. As an instrument of an oppressive system, it does not make sense, in any way, to commemorate the role played by the RIC. This, however, should not stop us from appreciating how people who were essentially good were pulled to participate in that role.
It gets easier to think about this if we see it as part of internalised oppression. We know that people respond in many different ways to oppression. Some ‘agree’ to be victims, some collude with the oppression, some seek relief by oppressing others who are less fortunate, some resist the oppression violently, and some resist it non-violently. Which response people adopt depends on their particular circumstances, the support and resources they have available to them, the particular ways they have internalised the oppression, their clarity about the nature of the oppression, their clarity about how change is brought about, and their sense of their own power and leadership, among others.
In a very real sense, people have always done the best they could under the circumstances and, if we truly understood what they have had to handle, we would find it hard to blame them for the choices they made. The real blame lies with the system of oppression rather than with the oppressed people who were pulled to collude with it. Many of these were good people, doing the best they could but ending up as part of an oppressive system. So, it’s important that we make a distinction between that oppressive system and the people who were part of it.
In the case of an organisation like the RIC, it is understandable that the families and descendants of its members would have a sense of connection to their relatives. It’s also understandable that they would wish to remember them and see some appreciation of any positive qualities they had or any positive contributions they made.
So, rather than commemorating an oppressive organisation, let’s remember all the Irish people who lived under colonial oppression and not exclude anyone. Let’s try to understand the different ways people survived and coped with that oppression, learn from rather than judge those people, and reach for a clearer picture of how oppression operates, the damage it does, and how it can be overcome.