Lagan, Francis ('Frank') (1916–2005), policeman, was born 11 December 1916 in Lisnamuck, Maghera, Co. Londonderry, one of seven children of Francis Lagan and his wife Bridget (née O'Donnell), who were both schoolteachers; Bridget's father was a member of the RIC in Co. Donegal. Frank was educated at his parents' Lisnamuck primary school, then spent four years as a boarder at St Columb's College in Derry city before joining the RUC in December 1936. He received the defence medal for service during the second world war, and was later awarded the police long service and good conduct medals. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Lagan was sergeant in charge of the RUC station at Cranagh, Co. Tyrone, and was subsequently inspector in charge of Lurgan, Co. Armagh. In the 1960s he was district inspector in charge of B District, covering the predominantly catholic areas of west Belfast; his duties included dealing with the Divis Street riots following the seizure of an illegally-displayed tricolour from Sinn Féin offices during the 1964 Westminster election, policing the 1966 Easter rising commemorations, and dealing with sectarian clashes between football fans. There were obvious advantages to placing a senior catholic officer in charge of this area, and it was here that Lagan became associated with the 'community relations' policing strategy.
During rioting at Hastings Street police station on 21 August 1969, sparked by unrest in Derry, Lagan was beaten up by a crowd he was trying to disperse with the assistance of Paddy Devlin (qv), and only escaped lynching by taking refuge in a private house. He subsequently undertook negotiations with the local citizens' defence committee leading to the re-establishment of semi-normal policing in west Belfast from 22 October 1969. Shortly afterwards, as part of a large-scale reform and restructuring of the crisis-struck RUC, Lagan was transferred to Derry city as commander of N District (one of ten districts into which Northern Ireland was divided; it covered the city, western Co. Londonderry, and north Co. Tyrone), with the aim of restoring normal relations between the police force and the nationalist community. Lagan and his deputy superintendent, Patrick Mary McCullagh, made themselves available for a wide variety of complaints and representations; Lagan travelled into the 'no-go' areas of 'Free Derry' without an escort to meet community leaders, and built up a network of contacts within the catholic community – such as the civil rights activist Brigid Bond, and the shopkeeper and political activist Brendan Duddy, who joined a City Centre Policing Liaison Committee set up by Lagan to encourage city traders to cooperate with policing. At the Saville inquiry (1998–2004; report published in 2010) into the events of Bloody Sunday, Duddy described Lagan as his 'mentor … the most honourable man I have ever met … utterly devoted to his job and to peace … always achieved the right balance between doing his duties as an officer and moving the community away from conflict.'
These contacts trusted Lagan as someone who would make deals and deliver on them; he hoped that such deals would in turn strengthen the moderates against more extreme forces. Lagan insisted on implementing the recommendations of the Hunt report, including the requirement that under normal circumstances the RUC should patrol unarmed. This policy came under increasing strain throughout 1971, however, because of rioting and paramilitary activity driven by elements outside the influence of Lagan's moderate contacts. City shopkeepers (predominantly unionist) complained that their businesses were choked and their premises endangered as the area of rioting and vandalism slowly extended from the Bogside and Creggan towards the commercial centre of the city. The monthly Londonderry Loyalist, voice of the city's growing Paisleyite movement, repeatedly accused Lagan of risking his men's lives, and claimed the RUC in the city had been reduced to a state of near-mutiny; it warned that unless firm action (preferably involving live bullets) was taken against rioters, a protestant vigilante backlash was inevitable. The Londonderry Loyalist accused 'the unholy … St Francis and St Patrick Mary OCR (Order of Community Relations)' of giving preferential treatment to nationalists at the behest of priests, and insinuated that Lagan was colluding with the IRA. It noted that although Lower Bishop Street, where St Columb's College was located, was a no-go area for the security forces, Lagan dropped his son there every morning. (The SDLP Stormont MP for Mid Londonderry Ivan Cooper later alleged that the Provisional IRA planned to kill Lagan at St Columb's, and were only dissuaded when Cooper got wind of the plot and pointed out that Lagan was the principal local contact for internees' families.)
Ian Paisley (qv) denounced Lagan in the Northern Ireland parliament as a 'militant republican' and 'militant Roman catholic'. Discontent with Lagan was shared by elements in the Stormont government, and his relations with RUC special branch – which favoured making arrests where Lagan preferred simply to prevent attacks – were also tense. Although Lagan was sponsored by MI5 and senior elements in the British administration, Brigadier Harry Tuzo (general officer commanding in Northern Ireland) after initially supporting Lagan's conciliatory policy (involving an agreement on 20 August 1971 to avoid major military initiatives) decided it had been a disastrous mistake and had allowed the situation to drift out of control. (Tensions may have been increased by Lagan's recommendation that the soldier who shot dead William McGreanery – later admitted to have been an unarmed civilian – on 15 September 1971 should be prosecuted for murder; this was overruled by the Northern Ireland attorney general on the grounds that a soldier doing his duty could not be charged with murder.) This loss of trust in Lagan among senior army commanders had serious implications for the handling of the illegal civil rights march on 30 January 1972, known as Bloody Sunday.
In the run-up to the march, Lagan argued that enforcing the prohibition would cause more unrest than it prevented, and would finally wreck his community relations strategy. He recommended that the march should be allowed to proceed to Guildhall Square, where he believed it would disperse peacefully, leaving only a small residue of hooligans to be dealt with; the requirement to uphold the law could be maintained by photographing leaders so they could be prosecuted later. Lagan believed that Brigadier Andrew McLellan, the local army commander, supported his recommendation; McLellan denied this, and it appears that some expressions of sympathy were misunderstood by Lagan. (McLellan and the Northern Ireland commander of land forces, General Robert Ford, discounted Lagan's advice on the grounds that he was too emotionally close to the catholic community.) Lagan's recommendation was overruled by the army leadership (on the grounds that it would open the central shopping area to riots, increase loyalist perceptions that law enforcement was biased towards nationalists, and that prosecuting the leaders after the event would require risky arrest operations in 'Free Derry'), and it was decided to mount a large-scale arrest operation using the Parachute Regiment; Lagan expressed concern over the security forces' ability to handle such a large number of detainees. He used his contacts with march organisers to reassure the army that the march would not try to reach the Guildhall but accept diversion to 'Free Derry Corner'; he also obtained assurances from the Official and Provisional IRA (via Brendan Duddy) that they would not have an armed presence on the march.
On the day of the march, Lagan was present in the official control room at Ebrington Barracks, and repeatedly urged McLellan not to send in the paratroops until it was clear that the tail-end of the march going to Free Derry Corner had separated from the rioters who were attacking the security-forces' barricade blocking the original route. MacLellan's eventual announcement, 'I'm sorry, the paras have gone in,' was interpreted by Lagan (wrongly, according to McLellan) as meaning that a superior had overruled McLellan and given the order that led to the killing of thirteen civilians and the wounding of at least fourteen others. Tuzo subsequently complained that Lagan delayed the interrogation of the wounded at Altnagelvin hospital; Lagan established that this had occurred solely for medical reasons.
Lagan's evidence to the Widgery tribunal of inquiry into the shootings (1972) gave rise to much speculation in subsequent years about possible cover-ups of the role of sinister forces high up the chain of command. Despite this, Lagan retained his influential position, and was spoken of as a potential successor to Graham Shillington (qv) as RUC chief constable in 1973. Frank Steele (the senior MI5 official in Northern Ireland) in 1973 discussed with Lagan proposals that an auxiliary police force should be established in nationalist areas of Derry to deal with civil policing.
On 1 April 1974 Lagan was promoted to assistant chief constable in charge of the newly created North Region (one of two regional commands covering Northern Ireland outside the Greater Belfast area; it included Derry city and Co. Londonderry, most of Co. Tyrone, and north Co. Antrim). Lagan retired at the end of 1976 after being passed over for the posts of chief constable and deputy chief constable on the retirement of Sir Jamie Flanagan. Although he stated that his retirement was not due to policy differences, he disliked the policy of police primacy in dealing with terrorism, favoured by Roy Mason (qv) (secretary of state for Northern Ireland (1976–9)), on the grounds that it would turn the RUC into a paramilitary organisation. Lagan retired to the Cityside of Derry, keeping his name in the telephone directory. He was unable to give oral testimony to the Saville inquiry (which re-investigated Bloody Sunday) because of age and ill health. He provided a written statement (made 13 December 1998); this, however, is not entirely forthcoming on certain matters (apparently Lagan wished to honour the confidentiality of his contacts in the civil rights movement) that were subsequently brought to light through the testimony of other witnesses.
After Lagan's death it was revealed that by introducing Brendan Duddy and two of his other contacts to the MI5 agent Michael Oatley he had been responsible for opening what became the principal unofficial channel of communication between the Provisional IRA and the British government. This remained open throughout the Troubles and was to play a major role in the peace process of the 1990s.
Lagan and his wife Margaret had two sons and two daughters. He died in Altnagelvin hospital, Derry city, on 9 June 2005 after a long illness. In the Granada TV docudrama Bloody Sunday (2002, dir. Paul Greengrass), Lagan is played by Gerald McSorley.