One of the sad facts of the Northern Ireland peace process is the way in which the experiences of the thousands of British soldiers who served in one of Britain’s most complex wars have been swept under the carpet. Sadly, as with many peace processes, it seems that a by-product of moderating the hard-liners in the interests of a bright future, is that some uncomfortable truths about the past are conveniently overlooked.
Ken Wharton, however, has been ploughing something of a lone furrow when it comes to ensuring that the humble British Squaddie in Northern Ireland isn’t forgotten. This book remembers the years of 1973 and 1974. The title alludes to the manner in which the IRA had an uncanny knack of ensuring that nationalist families took their children off the streets before an impending terrorist attack. Patrolling British soldiers would be well aware that something was awry, by the absence of the usually ubiquitous children on the streets. ‘Sir, they’re taking the kids indoors’ was more often than not a signal that something unpleasant was about to happen.
Northern Ireland must have been the most difficult conflict imaginable for a soldier. Restricted by what were completely unrealistic rules of engagement – particularly having to play by all of the rules, when the paramilitaries definitely did not – can’t have been easy. And I have to say as well, I am in awe of the bravery of some of these ex-squaddies, putting their names to their experiences and views so publicly, especially when certain unsavoury elements might be looking.
I always learn something new from Kens books. From the month my month breakdownof incidents, I get the impression that it was not necessarily the big well-known incidents that caused such a heavy death toll in the Province, but the constant ‘drip-drip’ effect of ‘smaller’ incidents, almost on a daily basis throughout the troubles. Perhaps to many, Northern Ireland consisted of Bloody Sunday, Warrenpoint and Hunger Strikes, and nothing else in between. Also, its only from looking at the list of fatalities that you can see just what a prediliction some paramilitary groups had for violence that often had nothing to do with the Troubles. With many of the incidents that Ken writes about, you could interchange the sectartian elements – religions, groups or neighbourhoods – and they would be virtually identical.
Something more controversial, certainly in the current era, is the extent to which Irish-American ‘aid’ helped to finance the IRA. To what extent was this intentional? This is probably something for a diligent historian to work on in years to come with the advantage of hindsight and when the potential for embarassment does not cause such a barrier. But it’s surely more than a coincidence that many of the weapons used by the IRA in this period were American-made Armalites or Garands.
This is the fourth of Ken’s Northern Ireland books that I have reviewed, and I have enjoyed reading every one of them. There are some cracking stories here – the Republican neighbourhood dog that had its vocal cords taken out by a Paras SLR, and other real, whites of the eyes, front line experiences. In generations to come I think these books will be extremely useful and important.