Special Patrol Group (RUC)

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Royal Ulster Constabulary
Agency overview
Formed1 June 1922
Preceding agency
Dissolved4 November 2001
Superseding agencyPolice Service of Northern Ireland
Jurisdictional structure
National agencyNorthern Ireland, UK
Operations jurisdictionNorthern Ireland, UK
Map of Royal Ulster Constabulary's jurisdiction.
Size13,843 km²
General nature

The Special Patrol Group (SPG) of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was a tactical reserve of 150 officers which had the role: to provide backup in civil commotion, to police sensitive areas at times of confrontation, and to show the flag in a disciplined and impressive way to those who wished to break the peace. [1] Formerly known as the Police Reserve Force, the name was changed to Special Patrol Group in 1970 to avoid confusion between the Reserve Force and the newly formed RUC Reserve.[2]


Each SPG section had 30 members, and was assigned a number and a colour - No.2 Section, based at Tennent Street, off the Shankill Road, Belfast,[3] for example, was designated 'Blue section'. These were the first policemen trained by the British Army in the use of riot equipment and tactics which it had developed since starting Operation Banner in Northern Ireland in 1969.[4] They were given upgraded weaponry and dispersed in units across the region.[5] The uniformed sections carried out 24 hour anti-terrorist patrols in fibreglass-reinforced 'Makrolon' Land-Rovers, as opposed to the armour-plated Land-Rovers used by some other units. The 'Makrolons' patrolled with open back doors, so that SPG officers could debus rapidly under fire. In addition to Walther PP pistols (later replaced with .357 Magnum Ruger Speed-Six revolvers, which were reckoned to have more 'stopping power' than the standard Walther) and batons, each constable carried either a Sterling submachine gun, a Ruger Mini-14 carbine, or a 7.62 mm L1A1 SLR rifle. A few officers were issued with Lee-Enfield sniper-rifles with telescopic sights, converted to use 7.62 mm ammunition.[6] The six-man teams were trained in special weapons and tactics (SWAT) techniques.[7]


The SPG was the closest thing the RUC had to a dedicated anti-paramilitary unit in the earlier days of the Troubles.[8] The British Army disagreed with its use, believing that army units were better disposed to carry out this role.[8] This was probably an accurate assessment, as, despite the accelerated promotion accorded to Catholic officers in the SPG, many of its members belonged to Protestant Orange Lodges and retained a traditional bias against the Catholic community.[9] However, the SPG did recruit a number of ex-British Army personnel, including former soldiers of the Parachute Regiment and SAS.

Bronze section[edit]

Within the SPG another unit was formed and given the name "Bronze section". Apparently modelled on the Mobile Reaction Force created by Brigadier (later general) Frank Kitson.[8] Whilst, like its army counterpart, not enjoying any notable successes, the formation of Bronze section led directly to the creation of the police "E" units within Special Branch the best known of which is the E4A department which dealt with humint and E4B which specialised in operations such as ambushes etc.[8] Bronze section itself was replaced by the secretive Special Support Unit (SSU) which was trained by the SAS and intended for direct action against IRA ASU's using humint supplied by E4A.[8]


Two SPG members, John Weir and Billy McCaughey were arrested in 1979 and confessed to paramilitary activities. In June 1980, they were convicted of the murder of Catholic chemist William Strathearn in April 1977.

Weir accused his colleagues of participation in 11 killings. An independent inquiry in 2006 found that in 7 out of 8 cases, ballistics tests corroborated his claims, linking the killings to weapons carried by RUC officers.[10] The Barron report found that a group of loyalist paramilitaries, RUC officers, and British military personnel operating out of a farm in Glenanne was responsible for up to 31 killings.[11] This group become known as the Glenanne gang.

The SPG was temporarily restricted from patrolling republican areas such as Crossmaglen and Silverbridge. However, some of the restrictions were lifted after Weir and another RUC officer met Harold McCusker, the local Unionist MP and asked for them to be lifted.[12][13] According to Toby Harnden, "the years when McCaughey and the RUC Special Patrol Group were at large represented the only period when loyalist paramilitaries made forays deep into South Armagh, a republican stronghold".[14]

The Armagh SPG was stood down and the remainder of the Special Patrol Group was renamed as the Divisional Mobile Support Unit (DMSU) which had already existed as to supplement the numbers in the SPG.[4]


The first SPG casualty was Const Robert Buckley from Portadown, married with two young daughters. Killed 26 February 1971 when gunmen opened fire from the cover of a rioting mob at Alliance Avenue, Belfast [4][4][15] An SPG constable, Noel Davies, was the first policeman killed by the INLA as he made to drive away a recovered stolen vehicle.[16]


  • Asher, Michael. Shoot to Kill - A Soldier's Journey Through Violence. Penguin 1990. Cassell 2003. ISBN 0-304-36628-5
  • Doherty, Richard. The Thin Green Line The History of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC, Pen & Sword, 2004, ISBN 1-84415-058-5
  • Ellison, Graham; Smyth, Jim. The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland. Pluto Press, London, 2000, ISBN 978-0-7453-1393-1.
  • Harnden, Toby. Bandit Country:The IRA and South Armagh . Hodder Paperbacks; New Ed edition, 6 July 2000, ISBN 0340717378
  • David R Orr (2013), "RUC Spearhead: The RUC Reserve Force 1950-1970" Redcoat Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9538367-4-1.


  1. ^ Doherty p58
  2. ^ Doherty p93
  3. ^ Asher,Michael.'Shoot to Kill'
  4. ^ a b c d Doherty p134
  5. ^ Ellison:Smyth p105
  6. ^ Asher, Michael 'Shoot to Kill'
  7. ^ ibid
  8. ^ a b c d e "CAIN: Issues: Policing: Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth (2000) 'The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland'". Cain.ulst.ac.uk. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
  9. ^ Asher, Michael, 'Shoot to Kill'
  10. ^ "SeeingRed [John Weir's Affadavit]". Seeingred.com. Archived from the original on 19 June 2009. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
  11. ^ Barron throws light on a little shock of horrors, Susan McKay, Sunday Tribune, 14 December 2003.
  12. ^ "RUC men's secret war with the IRA". Sunday Times. Liam Clarke. 7 March 1999.
  13. ^ The Barron Report and South Armagh
  14. ^ Harnden p139
  15. ^ Doherty p98
  16. ^ Doherty p119