Shillington, Sir (Robert Edward) Graham (1911–2001), chief constable of the RUC, was born at Portadown, Co. Armagh, on 2 April 1911, youngest of six children of Major David Shillington (qv) and his wife, Louisa (née Collen). His father was a prominent Orangeman, unionist MP at Stormont for Armagh (1921–5) and Armagh Central (1925–41), and Northern Ireland minister of labour (1937–8). Shillington was educated at Castle Park preparatory school (Dalkey, Co. Dublin), Sedbergh School, Yorkshire, and Clare College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in natural sciences in 1932. After considering a civil service career, he decided ‘I didn't really want a nine-to-five office job . . . I'd rather get out and about a bit’ (Belfast Telegraph, 13 Nov. 1970). Shillington joined the RUC in February 1933 as an officer cadet. He became district inspector for Belfast's D district (around Glenravel Street) in 1934. In 1935 he married Mary Bulloch (d. 1977); their honeymoon in the south of France was cancelled because of the Belfast riots (‘We ended up having five days in Torquay’). They had two sons and a daughter. While serving in A district (Musgrave Street, central Belfast) in 1941 he experienced the Belfast blitz.
In 1944 Shillington became district inspector (first class) and was posted to Derry city, where he remained until 1953; he spoke of these years as ‘the happiest of my service’. He received the MBE in 1952 and the OBE in 1959. In 1953 he was promoted to county inspector and took up an administrative position at headquarters. He represented the RUC at golf, hockey, and rugby, later becoming chairman of the RUC Athletic Association. In 1960 he became city commissioner for Belfast, where he was responsible for police participation in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. He also lectured at Bramshill Police College, Hampshire, and the Scottish Police College, Tullalan.
During the late 1960s Shillington played a prominent role in the attempts of the RUC to manage civil rights demonstrations and loyalist counter-demonstrations; he blamed its failure to handle this on the Stormont government's long-standing refusal to provide the funding required for a fully trained and staffed police force. In February 1969 he was appointed deputy inspector general (second in command of the RUC). On 12–13 August 1969 Shillington oversaw police conduct of the ‘battle of the Bogside’ and advised the Stormont government to call in the army before the police collapsed and the city centre was overrun by rioters; this phone call marked the beginning of the end for Stormont.
As deputy to Sir Arthur Young (1908–79), commissioner of the city of London police, who became the chief constable of the RUC in 1969, Shillington was expected to implement the ‘normalising’ measures advocated by the Hunt report; these proved impossible as political violence intensified. Shillington later complained that the initial British view of the RUC as an untrustworthy sectarian force severely hampered its intelligence-gathering capabilities. In November 1970 Young resigned (claiming obstruction) and Shillington was appointed RUC chief constable; his appointment was criticised by some nationalists (and hailed by right-wing unionists) because of his family background. Shillington's tenure coincided with the bloodiest years of the troubles; he had to lobby for the RUC to be re-armed and given adequate protection. At the same time he rejected such extreme measures as a proposal by elements within the army to have riot leaders picked off by snipers. His handling of the 30 January 1972 civil rights march in Derry, which led to the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings, has been criticised. He disagreed with the Derry RUC Chief Superintendent Frank Lagan of Derry, who advised that the march should be allowed to proceed; Shillington held that this would bring the law into disrepute and encourage illegal marches.
Shillington went to great lengths to counter rumours that the RUC would be disbanded after the introduction of direct rule in March 1972, sending every policeman a personal letter promising its retention, while at the same time reassuring ministers who were uncertain whether they could rely on the loyalty of the police force. William Whitelaw (qv), the secretary of state, praised Shillington's ability to keep in touch with his men and relay their concerns to the administration; he made a point of attending police funerals (including a Garda funeral in the republic). He also maintained unofficial contacts with the Garda Síochána, which provided the basis for subsequent cross-border security cooperation.
Shillington was knighted in the queen's birthday honours list in 1972. In June of that year he suffered a heart attack and was absent from duty for some weeks. He retired on 31 October 1973 (having announced his plans well in advance to avoid generating politically destabilising rumours that he was being pushed out); he had intended to retire in April but was persuaded to remain to oversee the heavy commitments imposed on the RUC by elections to the Northern Ireland assembly and local councils. ‘We have been tested,’ Shillington declared in his farewell message. ‘Despite all the tragedies and pressures we have endured . . . we have never ceased to do our duty.’ His retirement was devoted to golf and gardening; he loved the action novels of Nevil Shute and Nicholas Monsarrat but detested detective fiction.
A favourable account of the RUC by Chris Ryder argues that Shillington's greatest achievement was the maintenance of force morale as the province sank deeper into crisis. Shillington (with his chosen successor Jamie Flanagan (qv), the first catholic to head the RUC) laid the groundwork for the professionalisation and expansion of the RUC in the later years of the troubles; his protégés included Jack Hermon, chief constable for most of the 1980s. Sir Graham Shillington died 14 August 2001 in a nursing home in Co. Armagh.