Irish Echo

Irish Echo

When Tommy came marching in
By Stephen McKinley

In the summer of 1969, few doubted that Northern Ireland was on the brink of chaos. As the security situation worsened, the decision to give the police force backup in the form of British Army soldiers was welcomed by many as a necessary but temporary measure.

On Sunday, it will be 35 years and the British Army is still patrolling the streets and roads of Northern Ireland. For many people in Northern Ireland, the surprise army checkpoint around a sharp corner of the road, the chatter of the Army Air corps gazelle helicopters overhead, are as natural a part of the landscape as the Sperrin Mountains or Slieve Donard.

This 35th anniversary is hardly one to be celebrated, not least because most people recall the event inaccurately, recounting that the 14th of August was the day that the troops "arrived."

Like other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland has a standard garrison of soldiers -- it was they who came on to the streets in 1969, but were quickly backed up by troops from other UK garrisons.

The then British home secretary, Jim Callaghan, announced the measure thus: "The Government of Northern Ireland has informed the United Kingdom Government that as a result of the severe and prolonged rioting in Londonderry it has no alternative but to ask for the assistance of the troops at present stationed in Northern Ireland to prevent a breakdown of law and order."

Our hindsight accords something both tragic and comical about the photographs from that August, photographs that gave no inkling of the grim years of the Troubles that stretched out before the tin-helmeted Tommies who stood on guard and exposed behind barbed wire in Derry and Belfast.

For all that the British Army became a familiar sight in Northern Ireland, it was also a constant reminder that Northern Ireland as an entity had failed, its divisions so deep that soldiers with machine guns, not police officers, kept a sort of peace. Yet, in the anomalous way of the place, failure did not necessarily mean the hoped-for collapse that republicans desired.

Ironically for some nationalists, the army's advent was at first a good omen. Eamonn McCann of Derry recalled that the British Army took over policing duties from the RUC in Derry at precisely 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 14, 1969.

"The arrival of the British troops represented the greatest defeat for the Unionist government but not yet a victory for us," McCann remembered in 1999.

Others greeted the news with high hopes, not least many of the civil rights protestors who were not as yet nationalists and who saw the soldiers as a wholly neutral force replacing the hated Protestant RUC.

The Irish News editorialized hopefully: "It may be the first step along the road to peace." For a few surreal weeks and months, Catholic nationalist neighborhoods greeted the soldiers like heroes, tea and sandwiches doing the rounds whenever they appeared.

Good will soon faded as the reality of the stalemate settled in, as soldiers, in carrying out searches and raids, antagonized the population. As one soldier put it, "there's no polite way to kick in someone's front door."

Once Bloody Sunday occurred in 1972, the army came to be seen by Catholics in the starkest possible way as a brutal occupying force.

A constant presence

No one was ever happy with the British Army in Northern Ireland. Catholics saw it as an occupying force while Protestants complained constantly that "security matters" ought to be in the hands of "local men," by which they meant a return to the B Specials.

In one sense, this was something Catholics and Protestants actually agreed upon. No matter what political solution you owed your allegiances to, there was something strange and alien about the ubiquitous clipped English accents or Scottish brogues. Most British soldiers in the ranks came from working class English and Scottish towns and cities and to them, the people they policed were all simply Paddies.

Pat McGinn, a native of Camlough in South Armagh, remembers his first sight of the men of the Royal Green Jackets. His recollections are typical, especially for young boys at the time, regardless of the families in which they were raised: there was an immediate fascination with the sight of guns, uniforms, helmets, armored vehicles and helicopters.

McGinn, a Catholic with strong nationalist beliefs, said that as time past and he grew to adulthood, constantly surveilled if not actually harassed by the soldiers as he went about his daily business, he nevertheless grew accustomed to their presence.

A sort of necessary equilibrium is created by peoples' memories -- an attitude of "yes, things were grim, but we just got on with it." For some, however, the memories are more vicious and stark, such as Lisburn man Nigel Sands, who found himself two vehicles behind an army vehicle in 1988, and saw it explode in an IRA bomb attack.

"There was smoke and then a loud explosion and I saw two bodies lying in the middle of the road," recalled Sands. "One of them had no legs and one of them was burning. It was badly mutilated. It seems they were blown from the van."

Rosemary Hobson, a nurse in Armagh City, was on duty for more victims of the Troubles than she cares to recall, some of them soldiers in uniform, others innocent victims, still others perhaps men on active service.

She was 15 when the army arrived, and can just recall a time in Northern Ireland, when, to the eyes of a child, life was brighter and happier. She remembers puzzling sadly with her brothers, the banning of fireworks in Northern Ireland, the authorities fearing that they might be used as weapons.

"Halloween, until the peace process, well, the young lads would always find something to make a loud bang, but we felt like everyone in London and across the water were setting off these lovely colorful displays and we had nothing," Hobson said.

People of Hobson's generation and older also recall a time when -- though huge economic discrimination was aimed at Catholics -- towns and villages stayed open late. By the 1970s, almost everywhere in Northern Ireland closed early, shutters went up and after dark, the inevitable British Army foot patrol would slink through the shadows.

The army's presence was felt across the border, too, in the Irish Republic. For several years in the 1980s, recalls William Steenson, a Monaghan businessman who runs a medium-sized carpentry and woodwork business, his car model and license plate apparently closely matched that of someone the British Army considered an IRA suspect. Every time Steenson took his car across the border, he was pulled in, his car searched and his business queried.

Steenson said he would get angry and demand to see an officer, who would explain that the car model and license plate meant the car had to be checked out -- sometimes Steenson would cross and recross the border six or eight times in a day on business.

Eventually the soldiers got to know him and waved him through.

"Then," Steenson said with a laugh, "a new regiment would replace those guys and it all started over again."

Soldiers also had grim memories of their tours of Northern Ireland.

Peter, a soldier with the Royal Cheshire Regiment, recalls the fear that a tour of Northern Ireland could instill. He joined the army in 1973.

"My first view of Belfast brought it home to me that I might not come home again," Peter said. "Derelict housing estates, frightened, vulnerable people who went quiet as we passed. There seemed to be eyes everywhere, and amidst the chaos was the smell of peat fires. 'God,' I thought, 'I'll be glad to see the back of this place.' "

Process of history

As a society, already deeply divided, the effect of the Troubles in general and of the British Army's presence in particular on Northern Ireland, is perhaps immeasurable, except when seen through singular human experience.

Newspapers in 1969 all accurately predicted that the soldiers would be there for a very long time, though perhaps few would have believed 35 years.

Now, in 2004, foot patrols are less common, helicopter flights have dwindled in some though not all areas, and watchtowers have started to come down. The British Army in Northern Ireland hasn't gone away -- it has just returned to its barracks.

Some have even dared to speculate that the last soldier has died, too: on Feb. 12, 1997, a single high-velocity bullet hit Lance-Bombardier Stephen Restorick in the back as he manned a checkpoint at Bessbrook, South Armagh.

Restorick may not be the last soldier to be killed in the Northern Irish Troubles as a result of paramilitary action, but he was the most recent. The IRA claimed responsibility for his death right before its second ceasefire.

Restorick was 23. His mother, Rita, made an impassioned plea for loyalists not to retaliate and, as the peace process continued to gather steam and pace, she became involved in whatever way she felt she could help.

Rita Restorick sought the help of journalists who had written about the Troubles, asking perhaps the ultimate question of them: did her son die in vain? One journalist recalled the intensity of emotion in her questioning as she probed further, wondering if the death of her son might have brought a united Ireland even closer, bringing the whole Irish problem to an end and giving her son's killing some faint meaning and making his presence as a British soldier in Northern Ireland a somehow necessary part of the process of history.

Only the passage of time will determine that.

This story appeared in the issue of August 11-17, 2004

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?