The conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles” claimed over thirty-five hundred lives and brought the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) into sharp focus as bombings, assassinations, and paramilitary operations spread fear across the United Kingdom. However, within Ulster Province in Northern Ireland, loyalists confronted their own demons in the form of paramilitary groups determined to eradicate the IRA and Catholics committed to a fully independent Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (“RUC”) was formed in 1922 after the partition of Ireland and found itself tasked with addressing a conflict that escalated by the minute. Over the course of thirty years, Johnston Brown served as an officer in the RUC and witnessed some of the darkest moments in the history of the Troubles. This is his account of his career in the RUC and the people he encountered. And like the title says, there were times where it was necessary to go into the dark.
Though it is not a necessity, readers will benefit by having a general understanding of the conflict and events that followed the partition of Ireland in 1921. Further, this book is written by an officer on the side of Ulster law enforcement but not from the view of a Protestant or a loyalist. In fact, nowhere in the book does Johnston show any hint of bias regarding faith or politics. Known affectionately by his peers as “Jonty”, his job and goal was to protect and serve, and that meant breaking down paramilitary groups whether they were for partition to remain or a united Ireland. But before he joined the RUC, he had to navigate a turbulent life which included living under the roof of a tyrant posing as a father. The author speaks frankly about his childhood and the difficulties that came with the dysfunction created by his domineering father. But in an ironic twist, had it not been for the police officers he encountered, this book may not have been written. His account of his childhood is tough to read at times but there are bright moments in the story. And as shocking as those events are, there is far more in the book to learn as the story takes a dark and disturbing turn.
Johnston’s career as a police officer is routine until he makes the arrest of several men involved in a covert paramilitary operation. They are loyalists and as Johnston learns, they have friends in high places, which includes his unit and the Special Branch, an intelligence division whose role in the story will leave readers staring in disbelief. To put the events to come into perspective, Johnston remarks early in the book that,
“The very last thing I ever expected was to be obstructed by members of the institution to which I devoted almost 30 years of my life. I did not anticipate that some of the worst difficulties and dangers I would face were to come from within the very organisation of which I was part.”
Readers might wonder how threats from within could be more dangerous than those from either the IRA or loyalist factions such as the Ulster Defence Association (“UDA”) and Ulster Volunteer Force (“UVF”). Well, the revelations by Johnston will remove any doubt of the dangers he faced as he and other officers in his unit struggled to contain the tensions in Northern Ireland that repeatedly erupted in deadly violence. In relation to the arrests and release of the men suspected of executing a covert mission, Johnston has a physical encounter with a fellow officer in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) that leaves him puzzled and dazed. However, the fog slowly begins to clear as he realizes that the Special Branch has a bag of tricks and when they go into the dark, it is better to stay way. And this cold truth shows itself midway through the book when Johnston is contacted by a loyalist rebel named Ken Barrett, one of the book’s most unsavory figures. But the part about Barrett’s story that caused me to recoil was the murder of solicitor (lawyer) Pat Finucane (1949-1989). I knew Finucane’s story from other books I had read and reviewed about the Troubles, but I did not know of Barrett’s role and his status as a confidential informant. And an admission by a Special Branch officer in Johnston’s company left me speechless. It is at this moment in the book where we have gone fully into the dark.
After Barrett’s entry into the story, nothing is the same again. In fact, we follow the author as he works on other cases involving Ulster loyalists who commit horrific acts. Yet, the Special Branch remains a source of danger and irritation. To say that their actions are astonishing would be an understatement. But as the author clarifies, the dark figures moving around in the Special Branch should allow readers to paint them all with the same brush. However, the dangerous elements within the Special Branch make their presence felt in the book and had Johnston in their crosshairs. What evolves is a dangerous game in which Johnston and the Special Branch tip toe around each other while working informants and making arrests of men who would not hesitate to kill anyone deemed fit to be eliminated. And towards the end of the book, the name of Johnny Adair will be etched into the reader’s memory when he emerges as the biggest threat to Johnston and his family. And before the story is over, Adair and his loyalist conspirators get up close and personal with Johnston who eventually retires from the RUC but remains on high alert.
This is the first book I have read by a police officer on the Ulster side of the conflict. Discussions of the Troubles often center around the IRA but as we see here, the loyalist side was equally as deadly, and the Ulster police were at risk for murder by both Protestants and Catholics. Officers such as Johnston were navigating deadly waters as they tried to maintain order in Ulster Province where all hell repeatedly broke loose. The story is tough to accept but this was his reality every day as a member of the RUC who came face to face with the people who went into the dark and tried to take everyone else with them. Johnston is alive to tell his story, but thousands of others did not live to see the Good Friday Agreement and current day Ireland. On a side note, there were ramifications of the agreement that gave me chills as I read Johnston’s words. This book is an asset in preserving the history of the Troubles, a conflict that haunts the United Kingdom to this day. And if Johnston publishes another volume as indicated, I will be waiting for its release.