May the force be with you

Television - Andrew Billen is struck by the RUC's role in a seemingly foreign land

There is, as Coriolanus put it, a world elsewhere. Every now and again, television finds it in unlikely places. After 30 years of television coverage of the Troubles, what struck me about The Force (Saturday, 8pm, Channel 4) was how the Northern Ireland it presented still looks unfamiliar to the British viewer. The opening of Tim Pritchard's fascinating two-part documentary on the Royal Ulster Constabulary deliberately played up the province's elsewhereness. This was a world of suburban sprawl, where the kerbs were painted red, white and blue, and where flag poles, not flowers, were planted in gardens.

The programme opened with the Bomb Squad being called to a suspect package. It turned out to be a plastic grocery bag containing a jar of instant coffee. This seemed a neat motif for a trouble spot returning to normality until the RUC officer explained that instant coffee was not an innocent object in Northern Ireland but a component of the "coffee-jar bomb". So this package marked a return to normality of a sort, the normality of war, not the far-distant memory of peace; to coffee-jar bombs, not Gold Blend moments. It was a pity, all the officers said, people could just not move on.

What the first half of the study did not explain, but maybe the next will, is whether the constabulary would have looked so unpartisan and irenic ten years ago. Although "the force" (elsewhere these days the police call themselves a "service") is 93 per cent Protestant, there was not a trace of anti-Fenian canteen culture recorded in the hour. Yet something earnt it the local nickname "SS-RUC". This programme did not attempt a search of the historical background. I logged on to Channel 4's website and found a link to the RUC's home page. That it contained a heading "pipes and drums", and that, when I clicked on it, nothing came up, spoke volumes to me of post-Patten history.

Pritchard lead with Genny Belton, a chief inspector who was not only a woman but one of only 900 Catholics in the 13,000-strong ranks. As an example to wave in Chris Patten's face, she could hardly, from the RUC's point of view, have been bettered. Based in Antrim, where an influx of families from Belfast has turned a prosperous and peaceful town into a tense and divided one, she was shown facing up to a crowd of angry Catholics, discreetly keeping to herself her own Catholic background in South Armagh.

Mind you, keeping quiet about yourself is a survival tactic for the RUC and its families. The wife of Tim Hanley, a Drug Squad inspector, admitted she would not tell the mothers at her child's new school what her husband did for a living. At a briefing on the kinds of weapons they might face at the annual Drumcree stand-off, the riot police hid their faces in their hands to shield their fear. The explosive's expert lectured them on a blast bomb whose shrapnel flew faster than bullets and about a crossbow whose bolts could pierce your shield and transfer heat so intensely to your throat, nose and tongue that, should you survive the blast, you would die from suffocation.

Five thousand policemen, sleeping in camp beds, were drafted into Drumcree last summer, the culmination of the marching season. It ended this time with the local superintendent simply negotiating his safe passage through a door in the police barricade to receive the Orange Order's formal demands that he extract the reason for the banning of the march from Tony Blair himself. "By 6pm," they added. The ritual, you realised, had moved from the march to the ban of the march. In 200 years, they will probably be re-enacting that.

This was a foreign land indeed, and yet one that is slowly losing its foreignness. We saw a couple of drug raids being executed with varying success, and a speech from Tim Hanley about the long-term solution being "peer education and community groups" that could have come from an episode of The Cops. Paradoxically, for these cops peace meant demoralisation: fewer funds, more PC Plodding.

"There is an attitude that policemen sit around in cars and don't do anything," said one detective sergeant, sitting around in a car doing nothing outside a public lavatory that, for the moment, homosexuals seemed determined not to visit. In any other circumstances, I'd have queried (as did the detective) if it were really a justifiable expenditure of public money to wire up a loo outside Tesco's with CCTV cameras on the off-chance of catching consenting adults at play behind closed cubicle doors. I'd have scorned Ulster's unreconstructed Calvinism. But, in the context of coffee-jar bombs and exploding bolts, I felt like the lavatory attendant who marvelled to the newspaper reporter that, what with all the graffiti and drugs and homosexuality, when someone came in for a shit it was a breath of fresh air.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us