When Ulster armies clashed at night

When Ulster armies clashed at night
Nights in Armour

by Samuel Thompson (Mercier Press, €14.99)

With the question of Ulster back in the fore of European politics, this new novel reminds us of just what the condition were in the grim past of that province that wise leaders in the Republic and the EU, Northern Ireland and Britain should seek to avoid, with mingled memories of past fears:

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

where ignorant armies clash by night…

Samuel Thompson was born and grew up in the loyalist working-class area of Shankill in Belfast. In 1979 at the age of eighteen he joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary. During the so-called ‘Troubles’ he served in counties Armagh, Tyrone and in Belfast, where he experienced the loss of colleagues and friends and saw the results of numerous killings and bombings first-hand.

He has distilled his recollection of those experiences into this riveting novel. As a result, there is a ring of authenticity in every character and incident he describes.

At the outset he introduces the ‘Players’. They are two Catholics just out of school, lounging on the corner of a street in a Catholic/Nationalist housing estate.

Realising that owing to decades of anti-Catholic discrimination they had little prospect of securing worthwhile employment, they are resentful. They hate the RUC who, as they see it, avail of every opportunity to harass them. And they are familiar with the accounts of the torture and ill-treatment of Republican prisoners in Castlereagh RUC barracks.


When a police car drives past they pelt it with whatever is to hand. One is caught while doing so and is given such a beating with a baton that he ends up in hospital. Eventually the two are sworn into the Irish National Liberation Army. They set out to ambush and kill a two-man police patrol. In an exchange of shots one of them flees from the scene, the other is wounded and while pleading for mercy is riddled with bullets.

The RUC served alongside the Ulster Defence Regiment. Its members were targeted by the Provisional IRA. The author provides a clinical description of one of these assassinations. Although the RUC and fellow members of the UDR were certain they knew the culprits responsible for these killings, they were not able to bring them to justice. The result was that colleagues in the UDR stalked the alleged killers and delivered their own brand of justice.

This novel vividly illustrates the almost intolerable challenges members of the RUC had to face during the ‘Troubles’”

The hunger-strike conducted by Bobby Sands and others created a time of deep tension and sharpened the conflict in the streets. The RUC were unable to control the protest marches or even interfere with the well-publicised military funerals of fallen IRA members.

This frustration was but an additional irritant to the discomfort of the four RUC members at the heart of Thompson’s novel. They had to be on guard at all times – even when off-duty and were liable to be attacked whenever out on patrol. To cap it all was their attendance at the horrific carnage following wayside and other bombings.

The four principals in Thompson’s novel end their service in the RUC in tragic and unhappy circumstances. One is blown to pieces by a bomb. Another is seriously maimed after an attempt on his life. A third resigns in disgust at the social and political situation in Northern Ireland and emigrates to England. The fourth settles in Portadown, where after the stand-off at Drumcree which the RUC attempted to police, he has his home burnt down by loyalists.

Sincere efforts

This novel vividly illustrates the almost intolerable challenges members of the RUC had to face during the ‘Troubles’ and their attempts to cope with them and provide a normal police service. Their sincere efforts to that end need to be commended.

However, this novel is written from an RUC perspective. Hence there is not the slightest hint about members who descended into the abyss of the tit for tat, killing of hundreds of innocent civilians in collusion with loyalist murder gangs, UDR and MI5.