Hermon, Sir John Charles ('Jack') (1928–2008), chief constable of the RUC (1980–89), was born 23 November 1928 in Castletown, Islandmagee (near Whitehead), Co. Antrim, youngest of four children (three sons and a daughter) of William Rowan Hermon, building contractor, and his wife Agnes. Hermon recalled his father as despotic, heavy-drinking and self-destructively incompetent; he attributed these characteristics to traumatic wartime service with the 36th (Ulster) Division. His mother was devout and protective, and Hermon acquired his religious commitment from her. (For most of his life Hermon was Church of Ireland; in his last decades he became a presbyterian.) He attributed his self-protective shyness and remoteness, and his abiding love of the seacoast, to his childhood. He was a teetotaller until his mid-thirties.
Police career to 1970
Hermon was educated first at Whitehead public elementary school and in 1943 secured a scholarship to Larne Grammar School. In 1947 he left school at his father's behest to become an apprentice accountant; shortly afterwards his parents separated and Hermon moved to Belfast with his mother. After several short-term accounting posts, which he disliked, Hermon applied to join the RUC, entering its Enniskillen training depot in February 1950. During training he attracted attention by athletic and academic prowess. His later career was marked by concern for physical fitness, insistence on discipline and relentless study for promotion. Hermon was only the third of the nine RUC chief constables/inspectors general to rise through the ranks, and experience as a street policeman gave him strong distrust (possibly coloured by insecurity) of the view that an 'officer class' should be developed through extensive academic and professional training. He believed this risked losing touch with the realities of everyday police work, including necessary use of force.
On graduation (September 1950), Hermon was posted to Eglinton barracks, near Derry city, as a constable. A year later he was transferred to the city's Victoria barracks, where he encountered the sectarian divisions of Northern Ireland and their implications for policing. (Hermon's memoirs emphasise extensive personal contacts with catholics to counter insinuations of bigotry.) Posted to Limavady in December 1953 as a district inspector's clerk, he was promoted sergeant on 26 July 1955 and sent to Strabane. Hermon married Jean Webb on 14 June 1954. They had two sons (the elder was stillborn) and a daughter. Hermon recalled their marriage as close and empathetic, but regretted the strain placed on Jean and their children by his police duties and frequent transfers. During the IRA border campaign of 1956–62 Hermon was posted to Coalisland in east Tyrone to replace a sergeant killed by an IRA bomb; this experience (August 1957–September 1960) taught further lessons on the importance of fair dealing, and being seen to be fair, with the local (predominantly catholic) community.
In 1963, after becoming the first RUC member to take a six-month course at the Police Staff Training College, Bramshill, Hampshire, Hermon was promoted head constable under Frank Lagan (qv) and commanded a sub-district in west Belfast around Hastings Street RUC station. According to the journalist Jack Holland, writing in 1981, even IRA veterans in the Falls recalled Hermon's policing as tough but fair. Hermon himself believed that in the early 1960s the RUC had been developing into a modern professional force before political interference brought disaster. During the October 1964 Westminster general election, the display of an Irish tricolour at a republican candidate's election headquarters was made a political issue by the fundamentalist demagogue Ian Paisley (qv). The removal of the tricolour by police provoked riots in which Hermon received slight eye injuries.
In 1966 Hermon was promoted to district inspector; in May 1967 he became deputy head of the RUC training depot, and was appointed commandant in December 1969. This position insulated Hermon from the maladroit policing of civil rights demonstrations (which he attributed to interference by Stormont politicians), which helped to precipitate the Northern Ireland troubles. The collapse of the RUC amidst the riots of August 1969, leading to British army intervention, was a profound humiliation; Hermon maintained it could have been averted, and became determined to restore and professionalise the force.
Leadership positions, 1970–80
Within the relatively small (3,000-strong) pre-troubles RUC, Hermon was already a coming man; his rise was accelerated by the discrediting of many senior RUC figures. He was assisted by the patronage of Sir Graham Shillington (qv) and Sir Jamie Flanagan (qv) (whom Hermon described as his role model). In 1970, when the RUC was reorganised, Hermon became training officer with the rank of chief superintendent, thus skipping several ranks in the normal promotion ladder. He developed a new training centre at Garnerville in east Belfast with links to the University of Ulster, tried to counter demoralisation amongst RUC members (the force was now confined to policing protestant areas – many expected disbandment), oversaw increased recruitment, and identified protégés for subsequent promotion. He consistently resisted suggestions from unionist politicians and others that an official or semi-official paramilitary force should be established. Hermon also honed his skills in office politics and impressed senior Northern Ireland Office figures such as Merlyn Rees (qv). For some years before his final elevation, Hermon was widely regarded as heir apparent.
Hermon was appointed assistant chief constable in 1974, and in 1976, after Flanagan became chief constable, was promoted over senior men to become one of two deputy chief constables with responsibility for operational matters; he also worked to improve the force's community relations, and received the OBE (1975). In 1976 he was the only Northern Irish member of the Bourne committee, whose report The way forward established the main principles of security policy: 'Ulsterisation' (increased reliance on local security forces), police primacy in law enforcement (requiring expansion, modernisation and professionalisation; during Hermon's chief constableship the RUC numbered approximately 13,000, including reservists) with the army reduced to a supportive role, and concurrent treatment of paramilitarism as criminal rather than political. His period as chief constable reflected these policies, which the academic Paul Arthur called 'Hermonisation' (Ir. Times, 11 November 1988).
In March 1977 a holiday cabin near Whitehead owned by Hermon was burned by the UVF. In May 1977 Hermon directed the police response to the abortive general strike called by the United Unionist Action Council. He personally oversaw anti-intimidation measures at the vital Ballylumford power station, and arrested Paisley while breaking a road blockade of Ballymena. He spent 1979 on secondment to the London metropolitan police, and escaped much of the controversy over ill treatment of suspects at Castlereagh interrogation centre. He had not had direct responsibility for the centre, and opened channels of communication with prominent catholics allowing them to express their concerns to him.
When Hermon became chief constable in January 1980, he imposed tighter supervision on interrogations which led to a major falling-off in complaints. He quickly placed his stamp on the force, adding to his reputation for puritanism by a purge of officers entangled by 'the three Ds – drink, dames, and debt' (Ryder, 231). Officers involved in unionist politics were weeded out. Hermon's officers tended to dislike or admire him intensely, but all feared him as a rigid disciplinarian, his brusqueness increased by partial deafness (caused by a gunshot close to his ear in the 1950s).
The force was reorganised, with rapid response units set up. Hermon also harmonised police–army relations, assisted by the appointment of a new GOC. In 1981, after Paisley claimed to have recruited security force members to a vigilante organisation and launched a 'Hermon must go' campaign, and while the Police Federation of Northern Ireland debated a motion of no confidence in Hermon and endorsed Paisley's 'third force', Hermon set up an internal security unit to identify officers who were security risks or had loyalist contacts. From 1981 to 1984 Hermon refused to meet politicians – despite the wishes of the secretary of state – after one unionist told him he should only consult the wishes of the protestant majority.
Although press coverage of his appointment emphasised that he was 'untainted with sectarianism' (Ir. Times, 5 October 1979), Hermon's relations with the moderate nationalists of the SDLP (whom he believed should have done more to support the police) and the government of the Irish republic were also tense. Although Hermon had worked directly in the 1970s with Laurence Wren, Garda Síochána commissioner (1983–7), meetings between them were suspended until the November 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement because the government of Garret FitzGerald (qv) suspected that the RUC had cooperated with politically influenced gardaí in the Dowra affair (27 September 1982), in which an assault case against the brother-in-law of Sean Doherty (qv), justice minister in the previous Fianna Fáil government, was dismissed owing to the non-appearance of the chief prosecution witness, who was being detained by the RUC. Hermon's relations with the SDLP and the republic were further complicated by his enthusiasm for 'supergrasses' (paramilitaries who incriminated former colleagues in return for lenient treatment); the system was abandoned later in the 1980s because of political expediency and court proceedings which highlighted the shortcomings of accomplice evidence.
After overseeing the RUC response to the challenge of policing the demonstrations and unrest associated with the 1981 Maze hunger strikes, Hermon was knighted in the 1982 New Year's honours list. He devoted considerable effort to preventing or pre-empting leaks from RUC sources to the media, which he generally distrusted. Although in his first years in office he rarely gave interviews, he became a familiar figure on news media where he acquired an image of arrogant granitic certainty. This public image was influenced by events in November and December 1982, which overshadowed Hermon's period in office.
'Shoot to kill' and the Stalker controversy
As part of the reassertion of police primacy, an elite unit within RUC special branch was trained by the Special Air Service (SAS) to handle situations of particular danger. On 27 October 1982, three RUC men were killed by a landmine at Kinnego Embankment near Lurgan. On 11 November, as Hermon went on overseas leave, three unarmed IRA men (two of whom were suspected of involvement in the Kinnego killings) were shot dead after driving through an RUC checkpoint near Lurgan. On 24 November members of the same squad killed a civilian and wounded a suspected IRA member at a hayshed near Lurgan used for IRA arms storage; rifles, but no ammunition, were found. On 12 December, after Hermon's return, two unarmed INLA members were killed at a checkpoint at Mullacreevie Park estate in Armagh city; the RUC members involved believed that the violent and volatile paramilitary Dominic McGlinchey (qv) was in the car. These killings immediately provoked nationalist suspicions of a 'shoot-to-kill' policy – a police death squad deliberately targeting suspects.
Internal RUC investigations revealed that the policemen involved had been ordered by senior officers to falsify their initial witness statements to conceal that they had acted on intelligence from informers. Hermon believed this breach of discipline should be dealt with by internal procedures. The Northern Ireland DPP, however, decided that the RUC shooters should be prosecuted; although they were acquitted, the revelation that they had been ordered to lie provoked demands for an official inquiry, in which Hermon acquiesced.
In June 1984, John Stalker, deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, was appointed to head this inquiry. Hermon expected that Stalker would simply review the RUC inquiries; instead, Stalker insisted on reinvestigating the cases from the beginning, and he and Hermon rapidly developed intense mutual antipathy and distrust.
Stalker concluded that there had not been a shoot-to-kill policy, but believed an officially encouraged RUC mentality of excessive aggression and trigger-happiness had led to the shootings, that the investigation had been incompetent or worse, and that senior RUC officers (among whom he implicitly included Hermon) blamed lower-ranking policemen to disguise their own blunders and possible crimes, and encouraged personnel to refuse cooperation with the Stalker team. Stalker regarded Hermon's warnings of leaks and invocations of national security as obfuscation, and believed the special branch's use of informers risked collusion in illegal activities and agent provocateur tactics. In September 1985 Stalker delivered an extensive report while continuing to seek access to restricted MI5 material.
In May 1986 Stalker was placed under investigation by Greater Manchester Police for an allegedly corrupt relationship with a businessman, Kevin Taylor. The Stalker inquiry was completed by another senior policeman; on 25 January 1988 the attorney general announced that, while the report showed evidence of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, further prosecutions were not in the public interest. A number of RUC officers were reprimanded after disciplinary proceedings, and two senior special branch officers implicated in the initial cover-up were allowed to resign.
Stalker was cleared, but believed his police position had become untenable and resigned; after considerable financial loss, Kevin Taylor was acquitted of fraud and received more than £1 million damages from Greater Manchester Police to settle a suit for malicious prosecution. Stalker and Taylor claimed that Hermon had conspired with senior police and government elements to close down the Stalker investigation because of its explosive political implications.
Hermon successfully sued a number of media outlets for libel over Stalker-related allegations. These included the British satirical magazine Private Eye, which suggested the shootings were deliberate murders which Hermon knowingly covered up; the Manchester Evening News, which alleged that Hermon (who had never been a freemason) had conspired with fellow masons in British police forces to do down Stalker; and Yorkshire Television, which in 1990 broadcast a four-hour documentary drama, Shoot to kill (dir. Peter Kosminsky), which reconstructed the killings and Stalker's investigation. Hermon maintained that these lawsuits defended not only his own good name but that of the RUC as a whole. (He also pursued or threatened several non-Stalker-related libel suits during his last years as chief constable, receiving damages from two regional ITV companies for reporting accusations of political bias made against him by Paisley.) A character based on Hermon (played by Jim Norton) also appears in the 1990 conspiracy-thriller film Hidden agenda (dir. Ken Loach).
Infuriated by Stalker's allegations, Hermon eventually presented his version of events in his 1997 memoirs. He denied conspiring against Stalker, who he stated had ignored the effect of the constant threat of armed paramilitarism on the responses of the RUC officers (more than 120 RUC members were killed during Hermon's term as chief constable); he reiterated that the officers should never have been prosecuted and claimed that his refusal of Stalker's requests to see informant material (until authorised at a higher level) and to meet informants, had been a reasonable refusal to commit a breach of trust endangering current informers and future recruitment, especially given the risk of leaks to the press.
Later years as chief constable
During 1985 Hermon oversaw extensive police action against provocative and disruptive parades, despite considerable unrest. The most prominent of these controversies centred on the re-routing of an Orange parade in Portadown from its traditional route through the predominantly Catholic Tunnel/Obins Street area. Hermon again became the focus of loyalist conspiracy theories and accusations that his actions were being dictated by the British government to assist ongoing Anglo–Irish negotiations.
Hermon privately disapproved of the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement, but told civil servants who spoke of resigning to 'do your duty as I will do mine', and oversaw a vigorous police response to loyalist protests; he stated that the forceful and effective containment of unionist mass demonstrations on 3 March 1986 represented 'the emancipation of the RUC from the yoke, whether real or imagined, of unionist/loyalist influence' (Hermon, 193). RUC discipline survived a campaign of intimidation directed at members (who for security reasons mainly lived in protestant areas); 500 police homes were attacked and 150 families obliged to move. Even Stalker praised Hermon's handling of the protests.
Although Hermon participated in Anglo–Irish conference meetings on policing, he insisted that operational decisions were his alone, without Irish or British government dictation; he emphasised this by stepping up his media appearances. When Hermon issued a code of conduct for the RUC in April 1988, it was made clear that this was done at the RUC's own initiative, not at the behest of the governments. He believed the Irish government's failure to recognise his autonomy derived from the Irish system whereby the Garda commissioner was directly subordinate to the minister for justice. Hermon further antagonised the Irish government by announcing that they were not doing enough for cross-border security cooperation.
The stress of this period was exacerbated in October 1986 when Jean Hermon, whose health had been deteriorating, was diagnosed with a fast-acting cancer, which caused her death on 17 November 1986.
Hermon's last years were marked by disputes, both major and petty, with the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which he considered insubordinate; some observers thought that he pursued these with disproportionate zeal. He had initially been expected to serve five years, but had been promoted early and in theory could have remained until 1993. The British government discreetly began to consider his retirement, but was hindered by the absence of an obvious successor and Hermon's insistence that he would not leave at a time which might be seen as vindicating critics. Hermon was awarded the Queen's Police Medal in 1988 and retired in May 1989. He was the longest-serving RUC chief constable (its first two inspectors general, an equivalent rank, served for twenty-three and sixteen years); no predecessor or successor held such an independent power base.
Retirement and last years
Hermon settled in a fortress-like home outside Donaghadee, Co. Down (one of the few areas of Northern Ireland safe for him to live). He undertook consultancy work for a security company and a construction company operating in the Middle East, worked on his memoirs, indulged his love of the seacoast and of boats, and began a second family. On 31 December 1988 he married Sylvia Paisley, a legal academic whom he first met in 1987 after she sought his opinion on a draft academic article critical of his position on a sex discrimination case involving female RUC reservists. This second marriage produced two sons. Sylvia Lady Hermon was later Westminster MP for North Down as an Ulster Unionist (2001–2010) and an independent (2010– ).
In 1997 Hermon published an autobiography, Holding the line, giving his own account of his career decisions and a sense of the personal traumas and tensions behind his public image. Despite its insistence that he had always been right in his disputes, it did much for his reputation. In 1998 Hermon canvassed for a 'yes' vote in the referendum on the Belfast agreement, his reputation as a law enforcer helping to counter accusations that the agreement represented a sell-out to terrorism. In September 1999 he participated in a 'save the RUC' campaign against changes recommended by the Patten commission (eventually leading to the rebranding of the RUC as the PSNI, changes in the force's symbols, the retirement of many experienced officers, and the imposition of a 50-50 recruitment quota to increase the catholic proportion of the force). Hermon complained that the Patten proposals were being put forward too early in the peace process and that they implicitly supported republican claims of RUC political bias.
Around 2002 Hermon developed Alzheimer's disease, and was cared for by his wife before entering a nursing home for specialist care. In April 2008 he changed nursing homes after dissident republicans became aware of his location. He died on 6 November 2008 in a nursing home in Bangor, Co. Down.
Hermon saw himself as a professional policeman who found personal fulfilment in serving the community. 'I only came alive when I joined the RUC … it made me a person, it gave me freedom, it was my life' (Ir. Times, 20 February 1997). Nationalist and republican critics claimed that this self-image ignored the role of the RUC as defender of a British-unionist state rather than of a neutral code of law; republicans (and, from an opposing standpoint, some unionists) argued that the eventual political settlement which incorporated Sinn Féin and involved major reinvention of the RUC marked the defeat of the 'Hermonisation' policy of defining the conflict in terms of law-and-order rather than politics. Other commentators argued that Hermon's objective had always been to stabilise Northern Ireland enough for the politicians to reach a settlement which allowed a return to the 'normal' policing he had experienced in his earlier career, and that in this he succeeded. One former colleague told the journalist Chris Ryder that Hermon's apparent abrasiveness and recklessness in times of crisis could be recognised in hindsight as reflecting shrewd knowledge of how far he could call the extremists' bluff: 'Every time we approached the abyss it moved' (Ryder, 275).