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Sir John Hermon

Sir John (“Jack”) Hermon, former Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, died on 6 November 2008. He was 79.

By his own account, as quoted in the Daily Telegraph, his childhood was an unhappy one:

His father, William Rowan Hermon, was a building contractor and a heavy drinker; his mother Agnes was devoutly religious. Jack was the youngest of their four children. By his own account, his childhood was unhappy; he described his father as “despotic and intemperate” with an “aggressive temperament”, and wrote that the atmosphere at home was “permeated with parental disharmony and fear”. His parents eventually separated.

It wasn’t until 1950, when he joined the RUC, that he found his footing, according to The Independent:

He attended grammar school and after a brief and less than happy period as a trainee accountant joined the RUC. He instantly blossomed. His intelligence and abilities soon came to the notice of his superiors in a force which in those days was only 3,000 strong.

The Times adds:

He earned his first promotion to sergeant in Co. Tyrone when he replaced an officer killed during the Provisional IRA’s 1956-62 border campaign. He was one of the first RUC officers to go to Bramshill police college in Hampshire and was earmarked by the British Government for greater things.

His Protestant background notwithstanding, he established a reputation for even-handedness and impartiality in his dealings with the various religious communities, according to the Telegraph:

After serving in Strabane, he moved to Coalisland, where he cooperated happily with the local Catholic parish priest and curate; pace John Stalker, there was no hint of anti-Catholicism about Hermon. The one predecessor among RUC chief constables whom he sought to emulate was Sir James (or Jamie) Flanagan, himself a Catholic. Hermon’s own deputy chief constable was the Catholic Michael McAtamney.

He took over the top job in the RUC from Sir Kenneth Newman (who moved to become Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) in February 1980. Although his first year in the job was relatively quiet, the rest of his 9½ years were troubled, starting with the H-block hunger strikes by prisoners seeking political status, and continuing with the Stalker affair. This from The Guardian:

But it was the row over police “shoot-to-kill” operations in County Armagh during 1982 and the subsequent inquiry by the deputy chief constable of Manchester, John Stalker, that overshadowed his period in office. The two senior policemen clashed repeatedly. Stalker later claimed that during their first meeting Hermon sketched out Stalker’s family tree on the back of a cigarette packet, highlighting the Irish Catholic ancestry on his mother’s side – some of whom Stalker himself did not know.

Hermon consistently denied this, pointing out that Stalker never produced the cigarette packet. He was fierce in defending his officers’ integrity and cared deeply for their welfare and safety, as The Independent says:

He was particularly affected by an IRA mortar attack on a police station in the County Down town of Newry which killed nine of his officers, including two policewomen. It was the biggest single loss of life ever sustained by the RUC.

He recalled in his memoirs: “The multiple murder had a lasting effect on me. Photographs of the nine dead officers later appeared in the Police Review magazine and looking at their faces, pictured together on one page, disturbed me greatly. Nevertheless, I kept the magazine open in a drawer of my office desk until the day I retired. It still lies open at the same page in my study at home.” He wrote that in 1997, 12 years after the event.

After his first wife’s death in 1986, it was something of a surprise when he married again – The Independent once more:

His first wife, Jean, died of cancer in 1986, but an unexpected second marriage followed. He made a telephone call to a law lecturer, Sylvia Paisley, who had written an article criticising him for discriminating against women in the RUC. When he rang her she assumed he was a hoaxer, responding: “If you’re the Chief Constable, I’m Brigitte Bardot.”

She later became his second wife, and they had two children together. Today, as Lady Sylvia Hermon, she is the Ulster Unionist MP for North Down.

Sadly, he spent the last few years of his life battling Alzheimer’s, the later stages in a nursing home (the Belfast News Letter reports that he had to be moved in the final months of his illness because Republican extremists had got wind of his location).

The final summing-up goes to The Times:

“Popularity is not my business,” said Sir John Hermon, Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. “Command is.” The air of dominance says much about the man. Command was his business; the independence of the 12,670-strong RUC his fervent aim. Amid much controversy he succeeded at both.

(Sir David John McKittrick Hermon OBE QPM, born 23 November 2008 in Islandmagee, Co. Antrim, died 6 November 2008 in Bangor, Co. Down)