I’ve always had an interest in ‘the troubles‘, as the war in Northern Ireland has euphemistically been called. I’ve already reviewed Ken Wharton‘s book ‘Bloody Belfast‘ which I enjoyed immensely, so I’m very interested to be able to read his first book on the war in the province, which has just been reprinted by Helion in paperback. The title really is ‘ronseal’ – Northern Ireland was the longest continuous operation fought by the British Army, and virtually every British soldier from 1969 to 1998 would have experience of the province.
Historiographically, at present it isn’t quite the ‘done thing’ to try to write about Northern Ireland ‘as it was’ – the peace process and the Good Friday agreement have meant that a certain political correctness has prevailed. Between Paisley and McGuinness shaking hands, the British soldier has vanished. Just as political prisoners were freed, much of the history has been ignored, whether it be the role that certain republicans played, and also the experiences of the British Squaddie on the streets and in the countryside. I suppose its the adage that ‘one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter’, and at the moment, one cannot help but feel that the IRA are seen as freedom fighters by many. Many of the stories in this book are extremely callous – the murder of female soldiers, indsicriminate bombings, using schools and children as cover, the cold-blooded murder of unarmed soldiers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the massace at Enniskillen in 1987.
I think its absolutely critical to really understand as much as we can the experiences of the British Squaddie on the ground in Belfast, Londonderry, Crossmaglen and elsewhere. Not only in terms of the lessons in counter-insurgency, of which there are many, but also in terms of what they, as men, went through. Its incredibly harrowing to read some of the traumatic stories of shootings and bombings. To be honest its hard to know where to begin recounting stories, but suffice to say I was incredibly moved reading some of the incidents that took place. And these are only case studies. Its all the more poignant when you know of relatives who served in Northern Ireland too. But amongst all the moving tales, there also some typical tommy-humour anecdotes too. Time and time again, the British soldier somehow manages to make light of even the most dire situation.
On a more strategic and tactical level, this book shows just how professional the British Army and its soldiers became at counter-insurgency and fighting amongst the civil population. This was a very different war to most others. There was never going to be any kind of surrender, or victory parade. The Army were there to support the civil power in bringing about peace, and not to defeat the nationalists. The Army in Ulster could in all likelihood have gone all out to destroy the IRA, but that would only have polarised the situation and recruited more terrorists for the cause. The Army therefore found itself in an all-but impossible position of having to be on the streets, but only being allowed to fire if fired upon or under threat. A testing ordeal indeed for any soldier. Fighting among the people was also a different experience – soldiers interaction with society, good and bad and with both protestant and catholic, was crucial. Verfy often the squaddie cuts to the chase where officers, historians or politicians would be prone to waffle, and I cannot help but agree with the one soldier who felt that Ian Paisley recruited more young catholics for the IRA than anyone else.
One thing I have always wondered, is to what extent the IRA – and this might apply to other paramilitary groups also – drew its membership from politically-motivated men, or rather from a thuggish element who would have turned to crime in any case. Some of the stories shared by soldiers here suggest that political motivation may not have been as strong as we might first think. Here the importance of civil and military co-operation is clear – if living conditions, employment etc are sorted out, people are less likely to turn to terrorism, as with most types of crime.
If I have to single out some stories, it is those of the members of the Ulster Defence Regiment that really have my admiration. Mostly territorial, the members of the UDR had normal day jobs, and served in the evenings and weekends. Living in the communities that they were serving, they were extremely vulnerable to terrorists 24/7, any many of them – including a number of female members – paid the price.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I believe very much in balance in history. For too long the history of Northern Ireland has been completely out of balance. Ken Wharton has done some crucial work in redressing the balance, and I’m sure these eyewitness history accounts will be useful for historians for years to come. Not just for the major incidents, but also for the recollections about barracks, equipment, food and morale. The photographs, many of them personal images taken by soldiers on the ground, are fascinating too. The men in this book, and those that they represent, deserve the utmost credit for the job that they did. The troubles might have deeply scarred Northern Ireland, but they must also have scarred many thousands of British soldiers and their families.