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Sir James Flanagan (1914 - 1999):
Chief Constable, Royal Ulster Constabulary


Sir James Flanagan

Jamie Flanagan, as he was usually known, was the seventh head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), holding office from November 1973 until May 1976, one of the more fraught periods of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Furthermore, he was the first Ulster Catholic to hold this position, in a Province where such details can be significant and are certainly noticed, especially at that time. Yet his tenure as Chief Constable was more affected by the events of the times than by his confessional background.

Flanagan was the son of a Sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, the all-Ireland force which operated until the partition of Ireland and was largely Catholic. (His father died prematurely in 1919, but of the Spanish influenza which was sweeping the world at that time, not the political violence which was sweeping Ireland.) The RIC came under constant attack from Republicans during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921, so that many of its members had distinctly anti-Republican sentiments and were happy to remain in the police, in the new force established in Northern Ireland, the RUC (which was in many ways a straight continuation of the RIC, even adopting an almost identical uniform).When Flanagan joined the RUC, at the age of 19, the force then was a mixed bag in confessional terms, though the proportions varied according to rank. Thus, 11 out of 19 Head Constables in Belfast were Catholics, 40 out of a total of 105 Sergeants were Catholics while only 86 out of 624 police constables were Catholics. This was at a time when the proportion of Protestants to Catholics in Northern Ireland was very roughly two to one, and the Northern Ireland Government was desirous for various reasons that the RUC personnel broadly reflect this; however, for a variety of reasons, many Catholics were reluctant to join the force and some would not have joined under any circumstances.

Flanagan was promoted rapidly. This may have reflected his being in a minority which the Government wished to promote, but be that as it may, there is no question that he was very able: the son of a future superior of Flanagan, who was later himself a senior RUC colleague of Flanagan (and who was also a Catholic) knew him well, and described him as "brilliant". In 1939 Flanagan was transferred from his station in Fermanagh to Downpatrick and promoted to Sergeant. In 1941 he moved to Londonderry and in 1942 was promoted to District Inspector and was transferred to the Security Control Unit which had sensitive wartime responsibilities: at the time there was an upsurge of IRA activity within the city linked with support for Nazi Germany; Donegal, in the neutral Irish Free State, was only a few miles away, and believed to be a hotbed of German spies (though one British spy, reporting undercover from Donegal on German agents on a bus brazenly speaking in German, was told by his handler that it was highly probable they were speaking in Irish).

After the war he served in Greece for over six years, in the rôle of Staff Officer to Major John Gorman, Deputy Head of the British Police Mission in Greece (Gorman had been the Royal Irish Constabulary officer who handed over the Phoenix Park RIC Depot to Michael Collins, the IRA leader, in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921), the Head of the Mission being the recently-retired Inspector-General of the RUC, Lt Col Sir Charles Wickham. Their purpose was to help reorganise the local police service; Flanagan was awarded the MBE for his service in l952, the year he returned to Northern Ireland and rejoined the RUC. He served in the celebrated B Division of West Belfast in the late 1950s, during an IRA campaign which was almost completely unsuccessful. In 1961 he was promoted to County Inspector, then took up a post at RUC Headquarters. He was appointed OBE in June 1968, the very eve of the outbreak of the Troubles.

One of the leading broadcasting executives in Northern Ireland later wrote that for him, as for many others, the real start of the Troubles had a definite date: October 5, 1968. That weekend, Civil Rights demonstrations in Londonderry disintegrated into street violence when the RUC imposed strict routing restrictions which they enforced stringently, including with considerable use of the baton (later officially described as "without justification or excuse") against unarmed demonstrators of any age or status (one MP needed stitches to a head wound). For the broadcasting executive, what was particularly significant was that for the first time, such events were caught on television film and widely broadcast not just within Northern Ireland but throughout the world. Flanagan's colleague, the one who described him as "brilliant", found when he spoke to him at this time that Flanagan had little idea of what had occurred that afternoon, and that the Inspector-General was out of the country. These facts, he later wrote, said something about communications within the RUC, and something about the power of television images.

In November 1970, Flanagan was promoted to Assistant Chief Constable (after the Hunt Report of 1969 which made certain changes to policing in Northern Ireland, the title of the chief of police had been changed from Inspector-General to Chief Constable). Some saw his Catholicism as germane to this appointment, as the recently appointed Chief Constable, Graham Shillington, had an obvious Unionist background and it was intended or hoped that Flanagan would be seen by nationalists as a kind of foil to this.

Flanagan became Chief Constable on 1 November 1973, becoming the first Catholic to be the top-ranking police officer in Northern Ireland, in a force which at that time was between four-fifths and nine-tenths Protestant. Many saw this as a type of holding move by the Police Authority, backed up by the Northern Ireland Office, appointing a Catholic to assuage nationalist opinion, while allowing his new deputy, Kenneth Newman, who had been recruited from the Metropolitan Police, to apprise himself of the Northern Ireland situation and how policing operated or should operate. But if that was the plan, Flanagan did not fit himself into it. He was set on maintaining the independence - indeed, the very existence - of the RUC and had his own ideas about how it should operate.

In the first half of 1974, the political situation in Northern Ireland was dominated by unionist opposition to the new constitutional system instituted in the wake of the December 1973 conference at Sunningdale, England (briefly put, very many unionists objected to compulsory unionist-nationalist power-sharing in government, though Unionist leaders had by a slender majority agreed to it, and to an "Irish Dimension", though this was only very vaguely laid out). A general strike was called by an organisation of working-class Protestant/unionists, the Ulster Workers' Council. Flanagan and his force were criticised in some quarters for not having "faced down" these strikers, with the implicit accusation that some police officers fundamentally supported the strike; Flanagan pointed out defiantly (and apparently accurately) that not one officer deserted the force to join the strike. Nevertheless, there were those, including senior members of the power-sharing Executive which was forced out of office by the success of the strike, who felt that the RUC did not act vigorously enough against the strikers.

Later in the year, Flanagan was suspicious of the IRA ceasefire declared after talks with Presbyterian minister Jack Weir and other clergy at Feakle, County Clare. He opposed the setting-up of "incident centres", which were operated by the IRA and the Army in parts of Belfast, effectively offices for Sinn Féin which the Government funded hoping to encourage the development of the Provisional Republican Movement's political wing over its military wing (the IRA). Flanagan clashed with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees, over this symptom of what he perceived as a policy to marginalise the RUC or subject it to political control. As a way of asserting his force's independence, he stepped up vehicle checks in west Belfast regarding road tax and insurance, and was very critical of the Secretary of State when he discovered that the Army was operating in the same areas without his knowledge.

Flanagan made moves towards co-operation with the southern Irish police, the Garda Síochaná. In early 1974, he had a meeting with Patrick Malone, the Garda Commissioner, in Belfast. Cross-border co-operation was seen as essential for stability - in one atrocious instance, the unrest in Northern Ireland spilled over into the centres of Monaghan and Dublin in the Irish Republic in the form of car bombs which killed over 30 people, one of the worst single days of Northern Ireland's Troubles for fatalities, ironically outside Northern Ireland (though Monaghan is in Ulster) but still perpetrated by people from it and directly because of the situation there, which was admitted to 19 years later. Flanagan and Malone would meet at Baldonnel, near Dublin, at the Irish military aerodrome (where later Queen Elizabeth II would make history by being the first-ever UK head of state to set foot in the Irish Republic, following the effective end of the Troubles Flanagan had known), and discussed and agreed on improved exchanges of intelligence and co-ordinated ground patrolling in along the border.

There were, perhaps not surprisingly, attempts on his life. A regular mass attender, Flanagan often heard mass at different houses of worship but often enough at a particular Catholic church not far from police Headquarters. His driver became suspicious about a car which seemed to be shadowing them, and a search of a house nearby revealed telltale signs of an assassin's lair. Far more unnerving was the occasion when he and his wife were on a British Airways flight from Belfast to London, when a Belfast newspaper, The Irish News, received a tip-off that there was an IRA bomb aboard. The aircraft was alerted in the air, it diverted to Manchester Airport and the 85 passengers evacuated. A 2lb gelignite bomb concealed in a paint tin was found under a seat; it had failed to go off because paint left on a drawing pin used in the timing device which served as an insulator from the electric contact preventing the current from making the loop and detonating the explosive.

Flanagan was tall, with a commanding manner and, having risen through the ranks, was popular as a "copper's copper". He was a regular attender at RUC funerals and he and his (Protestant) wife established the pattern whereby the RUC did what it could to meet the needs of the widows of its murdered officers.  In June of 1975 he received a knighthood, retired a year later in April 1976 and settled in Suffolk. He was active in the Police Athletic Association (of which he was an honorary Vice-President) and the Sue Ryder Foundation, a palliative care charity. A successor as Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, is no relation.



Born: 15 January 1914
Died: 4 April 1999
Richard Froggatt
Acknowledgements:

Wesley McCann