The trouble with war

By Mary Nelis

Don’t mention the war. Don’t mention the fact that thousands of British soldiers occupied the highways and byways of this wee place for over thirty years and that all of them had a licence to kill. ‘The professionals,’ the foot soldiers of the British Government, must have wondered at times what they were doing here, for in the words of one Colonel, interviewed on television, ‘the wogs have all white skin’.

Since that day in 1969, when British soldiers dragged barbed wire barriers across Nationalists areas and terrified people welcomed them as their deliverers from the sectarian hatred of the armed militia of the six County State, few expected that they would still be here thirty years on.

But it wasn’t a war it was only a bit of trouble. Wasn’t it?

The bit of trouble needed some 30,000 trained British soldiers, armoured cars and tanks and guns to sort it out. It wasn’t a war dirty or otherwise, even though some 763 of the highly trained soldiers were killed during the bit of trouble and a cartoon in a local magazine summed it all up with a caption that read, ‘You fight people, you massacre them, you invade and occupy their country, and you wonder why for no reason at all, they turn against you’.

Last week, Unionists of all shades and the SDLP to a lesser degree were aghast that anyone should describe what has happened in the North over the past thirty odd years, as a war. The Consultative Group set up by the British Government leaked a suggestion that it might ask that Government to state that it had fought a war against the IRA even though the implications of such an admission would be to confer legitimacy on the protagonists engaged in the war. Unionist politicians who for years demanded that the IRA declare their war was over, have suddenly realised that in making this demand, they conferred IRA volunteers with the legitimacy, they are now asking the British to refuse.

In addition they are also demanding that the names of soldiers in the British Army and the UDR/RIR, killed in the conflict are added to war memorials.

They want people to accept that the bloody conflict of the last three decades which at any given time involved between 27,000 British soldiers and a further 18, 000’ Ulster Forces’, in effect a full time member for every sixty nine of the population in the North was a result of ‘trouble’. At the height of this ‘trouble’ there were fifteen British Army battalions in Belfast alone more than has been deployed since in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

In the British House of Commons last week, Nigel Dodds pressed the British Prime Minister not to ‘validate the terrorists and criminals in their sordid terrorist’s war by describing it as a war’. Brown didn’t take up the challenge.

He paid tribute to the security services, the police and the armed forces for the difficult job they had to do and then went on to state ‘that it is important to move forward with reconciliation ‘.

Perhaps he had been reminded that a declaration of war had indeed been made in the same House of Commons in June 1971, by the then Conservative Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling who stated that the ‘British Government was now at war with the IRA.’

Not long after Maudling’s declaration of war the British and their Unionist caretakers moved to prosecute their war by the introduction of internment without trial, although Unionist politicians deny, as they deny everything else, that they had anything to do with it. They made their own declaration in February 1971, when the then Unionist Prime Minister Major Chichester-Clark, stated that the Stormont Government’ was at war with the IRA Provisionals’. It seems everyone was intent to make sure that what was going on in the streets was a declared war, with code names for its operations.

Operation Demetrius, was claimed by the British Army as a triumph and a major victory against the IRA.

Those interned, Trade Unionists, Irish language activists, members of tenants associations, and Republican Clubs, and people who had no affiliations to any organisation whatever, but lived in Nationalists areas, became guinea pigs for British Army experiments on torture techniques.

Demetrius, a name taken from a Roman deity described by Plutarch as warlike and overbearing was a fitting code name for the military operation that was internment. But it wasn’t war.

Indeed over the next twenty years the British Government against the backdrop of emergency legislation, would project the situation in the North as a criminal conspiracy, a law and order problem, a religious war, a tribal conflict, terrorism, Marxism, fascism and of course, the Troubles.

Bloody Sunday wasn’t war either although it is now known that the British Prime Minister Edward Heath held secret meetings with military chiefs prior to the 30th January 1972. The military operation, which left fourteen Derry citizens dead and thirty six wounded, involved the elite Parachute Regiment of the British Army. In the words of the Coroner of the City, an ex Major in the British Army,’ it was sheer unadulterated murder.’

Bloody Sunday would be followed by many more bloody days as the ‘troubles’ escalated and the IRA engaged British Forces in an ever increasingly violent conflict. British Army Regiments with the help of the intelligence services, the Forces Research Unit, MI5 and MI6 terrorised whole generations of Nationalists. Agents such as Brian Nelson, a serving British soldier, supplied Unionist paramilitary organisations with information which would lead to the assassination of hundreds of Catholics.

British Army and Unionist death squads were responsible for some of the most brutal murders of the ‘troubles’.

Military and paramilitary activity would have consequences also for those soldiers who had serviced the British war machine over three decades and who have experienced since then, severe rehabilitation problems as a result of the war that never was. In his book, Hidden Wounds, ex soldier and North of Ireland veteran of the ‘Troubles’, Aly Renwick, describes in graphic detail the plight of ex soldiers who served tours of duty in the North and ended up serving time in ‘her Majesty’s prisons, unable to cope with their experiences of a brutal war that Unionists and others have down gr aded to ‘a bit of trouble’. Many were decorated including the Paras, for services rendered in the murder of Irish citizens. Many would leave the UK’s Vietnam and go on to murder people in other parts of the world.

But as Professor Seamus Deane wrote in the preface to the book,’ The Untold Truth’ on the murders of ninety nine people in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, many of the killers of people, in this small part of Belfast, were British soldiers. They acted in line with government policy and were obedient to their masters. Even in the case of Bloody Sunday, when the Paras characteristically slaughtered unarmed people, as they did in the Ardoyne, no soldier will be charged with murder; no politician will be identified as a criminal.

But then this wasn’t a war. Operation Banner, the code name for thirty years of British military operations in the North of Ireland, was just ‘trouble.’

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