** This article is a few days old but is worth reading



The platoon of paratroopers was surrounded by an angry mob of
protesters who appeared intent on murder.

One soldier had his face smashed in as he went to rescue a private
being dragged into the crowd, other colleagues took hits from bricks,
bottles and bats and one group of rioters ransacked an armoured Land
Rover that had been forced open with a crowbar.

At this point the Paras felt their lives were under such threat that
they considered opening fire at point-blank range with their rifles.

This was not Basra, Kabul or Kosovo; it was Belfast where British
troops are still deployed in greater numbers than Iraq because, as
shown by a riot that raged into the early hours of yesterday,
Northern Ireland's peace will always be one step from violence while
the politicians dither on finding a lasting agreement.

In the meantime the Army will continue to be on hand to take the
brunt in its longest and most bloody peace-keeping mission in
Britain's backyard.

In the unexpected July 12 sunshine, standing in Palace Barracks, a
short drive outside Belfast, two years of relative quiet during the
Orange Order's marching season appeared likely to continue.

But tensions had heightened after a decision by the Government-
appointed Parades Commission to ban drunken loyalist marchers
returning along a contentious route in Ardoyne with the Orange parade
and bands. The ban was to be enforced by the Army and police.

Their mission was to keep the loyalists and nationalist protesters
apart, while not becoming targets themselves.

"Our problem is that the people up there know that we are coming and
they can be prepared," said Lt Col John Whitwam, commanding officer
of 2Bn the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

We set off in the CO's Tavern armoured vehicle, powered by a hefty
Chevrolet engine, going by a circuitous route into north Belfast, an
area that claimed a third of the 3,600 victims of the Troubles.

"Now here are some boys who are going to throw stones at us," said
the CO as a group of eight- or nine-year-olds, standing next to IRA
graffiti, pick up some rocks to hurl. A youngster jumps up and bends
back the wing-mirror as we slow over a traffic hump.

The next two hours are spent deploying 800 soldiers, a similar number
of police, a vast convoy of armoured vehicles and 23 four-ton Bedford
trucks with 15ft high screens specially attached to the side to keep
the sides out of sight of each other.

The massive security operation along a 150 yard stretch is there to
prevent trouble for three or four minutes of marching.

"We have the impossible task of having the right number of people
deployed for the minimum amount of time and then getting them out
very quickly because there will come a time when the two communities
will see us as a problem," said Lt Col Whitwam.

"It's depressing yes, and I long for the time that the Army doesn't
have to be here and I'm sure that time will come soon, as long as the
police have the confidence to do their bit."

Perhaps in the future the Police Service of Northern Ireland could
call on police colleagues from Devon or Scotland if trouble loomed,
he added.

On a trip to visit the platoon of soldiers from 3 Bn The Parachute
Regiment, who had been stationed in a isolated spot close to the
heart of the nationalist estate, you could feel the eyes of several
well-known IRA men registering your presence.

A young boy spits at the CO's boots. "You're a bunch of gays," says
another in Celtic football top. A third asks if the fusilier's hackle
is for chimney sweeping. A shower of stones and large potatoes greets
our arrival at the Paras' position.

Mingling with the crowd two hours later I watch as men use anything
at hand to assault the isolated paratroopers.

The attack had apparently been orchestrated with several hundred
republicans deliberately moved into the area. After keeping a lid on
the hot-headed youths (usually via punishment beatings) it is thought
the republicans decided to let them off the leash.

The soldiers finally managed to get back into their vehicles and with
the help of senior republicans, the crowd was kept back long enough
for them to drive away.

At the edge of the melee, Lt Col Whitwam, fortunately wearing body-
armour, received a large chunk of rock in his back, while he recalled
the paratroopers under his command.

In the following hour, Belfast witnessed its worse rioting for two
years with the police having to deploy water cannon to maintain
order. Ten Paras and 25 police were injured.

The disturbance, seen as a probable one-off, came to an abrupt end
when the security forces pulled out of sight, leaving the area once
more to be policed by its own cruel brand of discipline.

But there was one element in the riot that perhaps showed how far
along the road to peace Northern Ireland has gone.

The two men holding back the crowd as the paratroopers withdrew were
Sinn Fein's security spokesman, Gerry Kelly, and Brendan McFarlane,
both of whom escaped from the Maze prison in 1983 while imprisoned
for IRA terrorist offences.

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