MANY people in Northern Ireland talked to me last week about Garda Jerry McCabe. They sympathised deeply with his family and were appalled to think his killers might be let out of jail prematurely because of a squalid political deal. Some did, however, wonder about those in the South who think it's fine to let cop-killers out of jail early as long as the cops they killed were from the RUC.
In Tyrone, I was at a dinner honouring the RUC along with a friend whose husband was murdered when the IRA shot him in the back of the head as he walked down the main street of a small town. As with 185 of the 303 dead policemen and policewomen, his killers were not let out of jail early: they have never been charged. I sat beside a woman whose brother was murdered and talked to people who had lost fathers, sons, friends and colleagues.
The "RUC family", as they call themselves, are a stoical lot who have shown as much courage in the way they deal with bereavement, injury and trauma as they did when saving Northern Ireland from anarchy. What they've found harder to deal with is that the reputation of the fine police force of which they are so proud was traduced around the world by vile propaganda peddled by murderers. Who in the South, for instance, or in Irish-America, realises that though between 1969 and 1997 the IRA killed 273 members of the RUC, the RUC killed only 11 members of the IRA? Being a sniper or a bomber is a much safer activity than trying to protect your neighbours from being shot or blown up.
The RUC family are bothered too because not only did Sinn Fein/IRA's bellyaching about there being "no hierarchy of victims" (ie a baby caught in a bomb is on a par with a bomber blowing himself up) gain currency, but now it seems there is, after all, such a hierarchy and republicans - or the victims they support - are at the top of it. They see more than £150m going on the Savile inquiry to fatten lawyers.
In response to howls from Gerry Adams and other concerned terrorist leaders, Judge Cory was hired to look at a few allegations of State collusion and there are to be more lawyer-fattening public inquiries into whether there was State collusion in the murders of "human rights" - aka republican-friendly - solicitor Rosemary Nelson (the RUC are accused of failing to take threats against her seriously, but she herself didn't take them seriously enough even to check under her own car), Robert Hamill (kicked to death by a loyalist mob while four police hesitated about intervening) and (this being a bizarre gesture to Protestants, 95 per cent of whom loathe him) scumbag loyalist killer Billy Wright - (shot in jail by scumbag INLA killers). The international clamour for an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane - a solicitor whom republicans have brilliantly marketed as a patron saint of human rights - drowns out any small voices saying "What about the RUC? What about our dead?"
True, the Irish government has accepted the Cory recommendation to hold an inquiry into the allegation of Garda collusion in the murder of Superintendent Bob Buchanan and Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, but your average Northern Ireland policeman expects nothing to come of that. They perceive the Southern establishment (with the exception of Michael McDowell) as appeasers of murderers and racketeers. And at home, they perceive their own chief constable as accepting the political drive to find an alternative to investigating unsolved murders (except those which bother republicans).
Yesterday, I was taken around the RUC George Cross Garden at Police HQ, 10 minutes from central Belfast, where the sacrifices and achievements of the RUC are marked. You could not walk around it without being changed by the experience (admission by appointment: ring Belfast 700116).
The Gardai were represented at the opening ceremony, as they were when the force was awarded the George Cross and as they will be this afternoon - alongside 15 other George Cross holders and a holder of the Victoria Cross - at a service for what is now RUC GC Day. Even if our government is reluctant to admit it, the Gardai know that without the RUC there would have been thousands more murdered by paramilitaries.
Our police forces, North and South, deserve our gratitude and respect. What they'll get instead, however, is probably the insult of large numbers of Irish people voting next week for shameless apologists for unrepentant cop-killers.