PC 196 Tales from Northern Ireland (1)

Northern Ireland has, for reasons which will become apparent if you read these tales, featured a number of times in my life. For those unfamiliar with how this part of the United Kingdom came into being and without writing three volumes of a book (!), the island of Ireland was partitioned in 1922 as a result of pressure to create a southern Catholic republic. Protestants who had settled mainly in the north wanted to have their own ‘province’. Part of the island became the six counties of Northern Ireland and de facto part of the United Kingdom; the south eventually became the Republic of Eire. Nationalist elements in the south agitated for a united Ireland; some still do! For a time the north was a mecca for employment and over the years many Catholics migrated there. Today the Province is evenly populated by both Protestants and Catholics. Fifty years ago the nationalists, mainly in the form of the IRA, banged the drum for change; they were resisted by various Protestant paramilitary groups.

In August 1969 the then Prime Minister of the UK, Jim Callaghan, announced that troops were to be deployed to Northern Ireland to try to calm the inter-sectarian violence that was spreading across the province. I was sailing in the Baltic; it was the summer after all and I was due to go to university the following month. My period of military service so far had been in the UK and in Germany, and rather dull; I remember thinking I might miss an opportunity for some action. Little did anyone realise the conflict would go on for almost thirty years until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998 (Note 1). It defined a large chunk of my military service, as I took part in two operational tours, 1973-74 and 1975-76, each time spending four months in the Province. When I resigned my commission in 1985, I joined Short Brothers’ London Office; its Head Office was in Belfast!

I had graduated in July 1972 and, with my Civil Engineering degree in my back pocket, returned to my Regiment in Lippstadt, Germany. A year later I got promoted and moved to a regiment, based in Sennelager near Paderborn; 39 Medium had been earmarked for a Northern Ireland tour in October that year.

We put our artillery equipment into ‘light care & preservation’ and practised infantry roles such as patrolling, dealing with unrest, intelligence gathering and searches. In mid-October 1973 450 of us flew to RAF Aldergrove to start our ‘24/7’ tour; we had three days off in four months.

Our regimental home was Fort George, an old Royal Navy Storage depot on the western bank of the River Foyle. Alongside in the river was a Royal Navy ‘depot, maintenance and repair’ ship, HMS The Rame Head. Those officers posted to her seemed to include the more incompetent, lazy, and dangerous members of Her Majesty’s Navy.

Fort George, Londonderry. A still shot from a cine film!

We were accommodated in a mixture of Nissen huts and large draughty old storage hangars, in racks of bunk beds; The Hilton it was not! Incongruously, between the huts was a caravan that sold everything you needed – cigarettes (obviously), crisps, fizzy drinks, lads’ magazines, newspapers, sweets and chocolate. Over the centuries the tradition had been established that these entrepreneurs, these Chogy Whallahs, mainly of Indian decent, would provide such a service. The Regimental Second-in-Command engaged them, agreeing a percentage of the turnover that went into regimental funds. He once remarked that these guys often knew if you were going to be deployed operationally before the Ministry of Defence told you!

Our regimental patch covered the centre of Londonderry, the grand city bisected by the River Foyle know to the Catholic population as Derry, west to the border at Buncrana and north to the border at Muff. It was a real mixture of commercial properties and shops, dense housing and countryside and included the sprawling Catholic council housing estate of Shantallow. (Our area of responsibility did not include the City’s Bogside.)

Shantallow Estate shops A still shot from a cine film!

Sadly the time when the British Army had been seen as a force for good, coming between the Protestants and Catholics, each with their own years of deep-rooted bigotry and hatred, had long past; Bloody Sunday in January 1972 was the pivot on which it turned. Suffice to say as we patrolled the streets, either on foot or in Land Rovers, looking for trouble-makers and those out to bomb, kill and maim, we became the target of hate, suspicion and loathing. I recalled the ‘Internal Security’ training during my time at Sandhurst. In the films, the ‘rioters’ in some outpost of Empire were always led by a red T-shirted chap; the colour of their skin also made them stand out. Not so in Northern Island where everyone looked like everyone else!

I guess I had lived a very privileged life up to this point and had little experience of those living at the bottom of the societal heap. That all changed when my soldiers got to know Shantallow. Sometimes we searched these houses, acting on an intelligence tip-off that ‘someone of interest’ (Note 2) would be there. Sometimes we were lucky and were able to hand over an individual to the RUC (Note 3). During our tour we found weapons stuffed in garden sheds and a small amount of Semtex, the explosive of choice of the IRA; sometimes hundreds and hundreds of hours of effort produced scant results.

Hidden in a garden shed in Shantallow

On one early morning house visit I realised there were no beds in evidence, just piles of dirty clothes and coats on top of mattresses on the floor. In four months I only saw one bed and was ashamed to see this level of deprivation in the United Kingdom.

To be continued ……

Richard 17th September 2020

Note 1: Incidentally, John Hulme, a Northern Ireland politician who was largely responsible for keeping the search for peace on track, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, died on 3rd August 2020 aged 83.

Note 2: One of the ‘people of interest’ was a Martin McGuiness, who denounced violence after the Peace Accord and became the Deputy First Minister, alongside his bête noire, Dr Ian Paisley.

Note 3 The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was seen as a Protestant police organisation and therefore another target for the bombers and stone-throwers

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