Alan Wright RIP

Fearless and outspoken champion of RUC colleagues

Sat, Apr 12, 2008

ALAN WRIGHT, who has died aged 71 after a lengthy illness, served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 33 years and during a 13-year term as chairman of the Police Federation played a notably influential role in the development of policing in Northern Ireland throughout the years of the Troubles.

William John Alan Wright was born in Dungannon, Co Tyrone on June 24th, 1936, and after attending the Royal School there and a spell working in his father's butcher shop, joined the RUC in 1957. By the time the civil rights marchers took to the streets in 1968, Wright was a member of the elite Reserve Force based at Musgrave Street in Belfast and found himself in the forefront of the increasingly violent confrontations which followed.

But while the Unionist government regarded the RUC as the battering ram with which to maintain its authority, it had signally failed to invest in the force. As a result, when the "Battle of the Bogside" erupted in August 1969, the 3,000-strong, under-trained and ill-equipped RUC was so overwhelmed and exhausted by 12 months of escalating civil disorder that the British Army was deployed to restore the peace.

Wright was profoundly appalled at the conditions then endured by RUC officers and often recalled how his unit was rushed from one flashpoint to another for days on end despite there being a shortage of vehicles, protective equipment and no arrangements for them to rest or eat. Above all, at that time poorly-paid police officers were not entitled to overtime.

Conditions improved significantly after the 1969 Hunt report. Among the most far-reaching reforms was the creation of a Police Federation to secure adequate conditions for officers.

Wright had already distinguished himself by sporting a beard in defiance of RUC regulations, and as the firestorm of disorder and terrorism progressively engulfed the RUC in the early 1970s, he emerged as a fearless and outspoken champion of the rights and needs of his colleagues.

In 1974 he was elected assistant secretary of the Police Federation and from 1976 until 1990 served as full-time chairman, representing a force that had grown to almost 13,000 strong during a period of unprecedented turmoil when, according to Interpol statistics, Northern Ireland was the most dangerous place in the world to be a police officer.

During Wright's tenure at the federation, he marched behind the coffins of some 200 murdered colleagues, victims of the daily shootings and explosions. Among those who perished was his own niece, Constable Rosemary McGookin, one of nine officers killed in an IRA mortar attack on Newry police station in 1985.

But while much of his time was inevitably devoted to ensuring the safety and welfare of what he called "the police family", Wright proved to be a visionary leader.

He was an early and vociferous advocate of an independent mechanism to investigate complaints against the police, not only to expose officers who deviated from the high standards expected of them, but also to help counter the morale-sapping propaganda against the RUC. His support led to the establishment of a ground-breaking Police Complaints Board in 1977, forerunner of the present Police Ombudsman.

Wright was also deeply concerned about the toll the Troubles were taking on the physical and mental health of his members and he recognised the inadequacy of suppressing their emotions with large drams of whisky.

Despite an attitude that it was a sign of weakness to seek help for mental trauma, Wright persisted in his campaign for an Occupational Health Unit, a battle he finally won over sceptical commanders in 1984.

His greatest achievement though came in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 when the loyalist community turned on the force, attacking nearly 600 officers in their homes and forcing 120 families to move.

It fell to Wright to neutralise a small partisan faction within RUC ranks, outflank attempts by prominent Unionist politicians to subvert the force and even incite mutiny, and strongly confront those who doubted its impartiality and even-handedness in serving the protestant and catholic communities. The crisis marked a major turning point in changing the perception that the RUC was a pro-Unionist force.

Throughout these turbulent events, Wright was involved in repeated clashes with his notably authoritarian chief constable, Jack Hermon, disagreements which led to the federation narrowly rejecting a confidence vote in Hermon and a futile attempt by him to prevent the federation having a public role in the conduct of policing.

He is survived by his wife, Lorraine, daughters Karen and Gillian and grandson Adam.

Alan Wright: born June 24th, 1936; died March 28th, 2008
© 2008 The Irish Times
Very sad indeed. He put himself at considerable extra risk of being murdered as a very public RUC face. At one time he was on the evening news virtually every day. A fair man of integrity who will be missed.

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