Special Patrol Group (RUC)

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Royal Ulster Constabulary
Abbreviation RUC
Agency overview
Formed 1 June 1922
Preceding agency Royal Irish Constabulary
Dissolved 4 November 2001
Superseding agency Police Service of Northern Ireland
Legal personality Governmental: Government agency
Jurisdictional structure
National agency Northern Ireland, UK
Map of Royal Ulster Constabulary's jurisdiction.
Size 13,843 km²
General nature
Operational structure

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 following the Hunt Report and the reforming of the Royal Ulster Constabularly to bring it more into line with othe U.K. Police Forces i.e . It became an UNARMED POLICE SERVICE , which was temporarily armed due to the continued murderous campaign waged upon the men and women of the service , whether armed or unarmed and whether on or off duty and also to avoid confusion between the defunct more militarised Reserve Force and the newly formed RUC Reserve which was recommended in the Hunt Report and consisted of a large number of part time , trained officers to help with security and relieve the hard pressed regular officers of some of the more mundane duties as well as a small number of full time Reserve Constables who were more fully integrated into the regular service . These police reserve officers provided much needed support to the hard pressed regular officers especially in the 1970s when casualties and fatalities among both regular and reserve officers were reaching figures of 2 or 3 officers, on average , being murdered every WEEK . The Special Patrol Groups were formed as mobile support units originally based around police stations in Belfast and with a section ( Orange Section ) in Armagh and it required a minimum length of service and a rigorous interview process before an officer could be accepted into the ranks .These requirements were later dropped most likely due to the need for greater numbers from what was a small pool as the RUC was greatly undermanned to cope with the terrorist campaigns being waged from various so called Loyalist and Republican organizations . Officers in the SPG were called upon to deal with major civil unrest as well as numerous , regular bombings , shootings etc sometimes involving multiple bombs in Belfast city centre and other locations on the same day . In the 1970s the SPG relied heavily on the calibre of its officers as they were poorly equipped , carrying low power Walther pistols and World War 2 , Sterling sub machine guns to defend themselves against terrorists armed with high velocity weapons such as the American Armalite and M1 Carbines as well as RPG Rocket Launchers , various mortar devices and heavy machine guns . They were so disadvantaged as regarded firepower , that , at one stage in the early 70s , members of the Parachute Regiment were assigned to each long wheel base Land Rover to supplement the meagre firepower of 1 or 2 Sterlings in each crew . This was a short term exercise as it gave the " wrong " image , not at all in keeping with the aims of the aforementioned Hunt Report . Members of the Royal Military Police were brought in , after the disastrous folly of them trying to patrol staunchly Republican areas such as the Bogside and Creggan in Londonderry , unarmed and in unarmoured cars which were painted white ( to the delight of PIRA Snipers ) which resulted in a number of them being shot . . It was not however until an English Chief Constable , Sir Kenneth Newman , took over that the political correctness was set aside and RUC officers in general and the officers of the Special Patrol Groups in particular , were issued with and trained in the use of more uptodate weapons with which to defend themselves and the law abiding citizens of Northern Ireland . Prior to that the men and women in the SPG in particular had scored many sucesses against the terrorists mainly by their courage and alertness , including intercepting bombs , and preventing numerous gun attacks as well as standing up to hundreds of rioters with little or no protective riot gear ( compared to what we see today )


Each SPG section had 30 members, and was assigned a number and a colour - No.2 Section, WAS NOT based at Tennent Street, off the Shankill Road, Belfast,[2] for example, was NOT 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.[3] They were given upgraded weaponry and dispersed in units across the region.[4] 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 DID NOT carry either a WW2 Stirling sub-machine gun, an Ruger 14 Carbine, or a 7.62 mm SLR rifle. A few officers were issued with Lee-Enfield sniper-rifles with telescopic sights, converted to use 7.62 mm ammunition.[5]. The six-man teams were trained in special weapons and tactics (SWAT) techniques.[6]


The SPG was the closest thing the RUC had to a dedicated anti-paramilitary unit in the earlier days of the Troubles.[7] The British Army disagreed with its use, believing that army units were better disposed to carry out this role.[7]. This was probably an INAccurate assessment, as, despite the DISCRIMATORY promotion accorded to Catholic officers in the SPG, many of its members belonged to Protestant Orange Lodges ( which claim to stand for freedom of worship and religious liberty dating back to the 17th century ) and retained a traditional bias against TERRORISTS from any community.[8].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.[7] 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.[7] 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.[7]


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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11][12] 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".[13]

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.[3]


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 [3][3][14] An SPG constable, Noel Davies, was the first policeman killed by the INLA as he made to drive away a recovered stolen vehicle.[15]


  • 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. ^ Asher,Michael.'Shoot to Kill'
  3. ^ a b c d Doherty p134
  4. ^ Ellison:Smyth p105
  5. ^ Asher, Michael 'Shoot to Kill'
  6. ^ ibid
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ Asher, Michael, 'Shoot to Kill'
  9. ^ "SeeingRed [John Weir's Affadavit]". Seeingred.com. Retrieved 19 August 2013. 
  10. ^ Barron throws light on a little shock of horrors, Susan McKay, Sunday Tribune, 14 December 2003.
  11. ^ "RUC men's secret war with the IRA". Sunday Times. Liam Clarke. 7 March 1999.
  12. ^ The Barron Report and South Armagh
  13. ^ Harnden p139
  14. ^ Doherty p98
  15. ^ Doherty p119