By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - The Irish government on Tuesday cancelled plans to hold a ceremony next week to commemorate the British police force that fought against Irish independence a century ago after a backlash by opposition parties.
The commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), who fought Irish rebels during the 1919-1921 War of Independence, was due to take place in Dublin Castle, former seat of British administration in Ireland but now used for state events.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's centre-right government argued that many members of the police forces were Irish and that some were sympathetic to the cause of Irish independence. It has also called for greater efforts to understand pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland, which is still part of the United Kingdom.
But the event was widely ridiculed for commemorating forces that resisted the independence struggle that led to the end of centuries of British rule in what became the Irish Republic.
"In no other state would those who facilitated the suppression of national freedom be commemorated by the state," said Mary Lou McDonald, former leader of Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that violently opposed British rule in Northern Ireland until a 1998 peace deal.
Opponents of the plan were particularly sensitive to any acknowledgement of the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, the RIC's special reserve and paramilitary units recruited from Britain who are still reviled in Ireland a century later.
The government said there was never any plan to commemorate these groups, who were accused of burning towns, villages and most infamously large parts of Cork, Ireland's second largest city.
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said on Tuesday the government was deferring rather than cancelling the event and would organise an "alternative commemoration" in the months ahead after consulting with stakeholders.
"Given the disappointing response of some ... I do not believe that the event, as planned, can now take place in an atmosphere that meets the goals and guiding principles of the overall commemorative programme," Flanagan said in a statement.
The decision came after members of the main opposition party, Fianna Fail, said they would not attend the commemoration and its leader, Micheal Martin, said the decision to hold the ceremony was "difficult to comprehend".
Defending the plans, Varadkar said on Twitter that it was a commemoration rather than a celebration.
"We should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a state to acknowledge all aspects of our past," Varadkar said.
The dispute comes amid increasing calls, led by Sinn Fein, for a referendum to end the nearly century-old partition of the island and reunite Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom with a Protestant majority, with the mainly Roman Catholic Irish Republic.
(Writing by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries; Editing by Gareth Jones and Nick Macfie)