The British government has shamelessly covered its tracks in relation to abuse of its authority in Ireland, and continues to do so. It is time to talk about what happened to us all during those long, dark years of conflict and hatred, when we lived in the same houses, but in different worlds.
A botched curtsey
At Drumahoe Primary School in the North of Ireland in the 1960s, big groups of us would link arms and stomp round the yard, chanting ‘We won the war!’. We had no idea which war, but we were jubilant anyway.
I grew up to the sound of marching boots on tarmac, and my father’s voice barking out staccato orders. ‘To the left, quick march! Parade: Halt! Eyes right!’. My sisters and I would sometimes peek out of our bedroom window, over the tops of the leylandia trees and into the tennis courts, where Major McKay would be out, exercising his Territorial Army (TA) cadets.
He’d get us to polish his boots, and he’d stand to attention with his chest puffed out and salute, a grey feather cockade in his cap. Andy Stewart’s The Scottish Soldier was often on the record player, lamenting that these green hills were not the hills of home. We had short hair and kilts, and looked like boys.
My mother would pack us into the car, and we’d drop him off at a firing range in the sandhills at Magilligan before we headed for the beach. Once, I was at Girl Guide camp outside Edinburgh, near the place where the TA was camping that year. My father came to visit, swinging out of a Land Rover in full army uniform. I was embarrassed.
He was Headmaster of the Protestant secondary school to which the tennis courts belonged, and the cadets were his pupils. We didn’t go to that school, although many of the boys we’d been at primary school with did, and many of them joined the TA. They were mostly country boys, or boys from the local estates. Drumahoe is a suburb of Derry now, but at that time was rural, and the school still closed for a fortnight every year for the potato picking.
We, on the other hand, did the 11-plus and got the Ulsterbus every morning to the High School – also Protestant – a few miles away in Derry. Not half a mile from the Catholic Bogside, the school was in a big, Victorian house, set in its own leafy grounds. The sign at the gate still read ‘Londonderry High School for Young Ladies’, although no one called it that any more.
Minor efforts had been made to help me fit into the unionist world. As a small girl, I had been taught how to curtsey. I was to present a bouquet to Lady somebody-or-other when she opened the annual flower show in Derry’s Guildhall. Lift your skirt slightly with both hands, bow your head, lean forward, bending both knees outwards, ankles close, one foot slightly behind the other. She was a vision in a hat. Red faced, eyes down, I unsmilingly shoved the large bunch of chrysanthemums into her gloved hands, and hurtled off the stage. No curtsey.
Going to the High School for me coincided with the start of the Troubles. The town was full of soldiers. Thousands of them. Soldiers on foot patrols striding along, swerving and turning, guns at the ready. Marching ranks of them on the Strand Road. The old factory down the road from our house was turned into an army camp. We’d sometimes see girls from the estate next door, kissing soldiers through the tall fence.
My friends and I would camp in our back garden, and we’d hear gun battles in the distance while we told each other ghost stories. Boys who we knew headed up the road past our house with nail-studded clubs to join the B Specials at Burntollet, where they attacked the student march.
The developing crisis preoccupied the adults around us. Tiny, neat Miss Mathena Patterson, who taught five-year-olds, said fiercely to my mild mother, ‘The post office is rotten with them.’ Meaning Catholics.
There was an army hut made of sandbags at the side of the Guildhall, that you had to pass through when you walked through the city centre. It had a wooden counter, where you placed your bag to be searched, and the soldiers would snigger at us and make sexual remarks as they went through our schoolbags. There was a fad for fake fur pencil cases at the time. One day, a soldier took mine out and started stroking it and asking about my pussy. Another soldier asked my sister for her address and sent her an amorous letter.
I was useless at hockey, but liked to be made left back because it gave me a good view of the army lorries zooming down Duncreggan Road, filled with soldiers waving and grinning at us. An army helicopter landed on the lawn one day during maths. All eyes turned eagerly towards the fit young men leaping out onto the grass. Tall, stern Miss Armstrong closed the curtains and continued her lesson.
I played trombone, and soldiers from one of the regimental bands used to come and play along with us in the school orchestra. We played hymns and Beatles songs, and When the Saints Go Marching In.
I developed a crush on a big, stout sergeant who also played trombone. He had terrible acne, and no interest in me, but I still decided to leave school and join the Women’s Royal Army Corps. My parents exchanged worried looks when I got the brochures in the post. Maybe I should finish school first, they suggested.
The Northern Ireland news was a grim nightly experience. It was how we heard about Bloody Sunday in 1972. My father was in the Northern Ireland Labour Party, cautiously supported civil rights, and deplored Ian Paisley, whose ranting voice sometimes wafted into our house from a gospel hall down the road. We knew, watching the television, that the paratroopers were to blame.
However, when my parents kept us home from school the next day, the note they sent to excuse us just said it was in case there was trouble in town. There was no mention of Bloody Sunday at school assembly either. A girl was crying in the cloakroom, and it was rumoured she had been going out with one of the teenage boys who’d been shot dead.
There was an intense, shocked silence in Derry.
A while later, in English class, we were reading a play by Lady Gregory, which has lines about soldiers opening fire on a crowd. Our teacher, a distinguished and sensitive man called Denzil Stewart, tried to get us to talk about it in the context of Derry, but some of the girls made violent remarks about how there’d been no trouble in Londonderry until the Catholics started it, and it was their own fault if they got shot. Eventually, he despaired and swept out of the classroom, white with anger in his black gown.
Catholic Derry hated us, it seemed. Our school’s equivalent of the stiff upper lip was our grey beret, which had to be worn on all occasions. Walking through town, we’d hear sneering shouts of, ‘Oh look, the greyhounds are out exercising,’ and our berets would be snatched from our heads. The city swimming pool was on the edge of the Bogside, and our buses were stoned, until one day, without a word to us, the school stopped sending us to swimming classes altogether.
We saw all the outward manifestations of trouble, but we had no insight into its causes. I met Catholics on family holidays in Donegal, but I didn’t know any Derry ones. Saturday riots on Waterloo Place were scary if you had a part-time job in Littlewoods, and we carried hankies to hold to our faces against the lingering CS gas fired by the army. There were bombs and bomb scares, and traffic jams and army checkpoints, and the city was full of burnt-out ruins. But we were detached from it. It was as if it were happening elsewhere.
The soldiers had lost their novelty value. They didn’t bother us, and we had ceased to notice them. We never really had noticed their guns.
When we were 16 or so, my friend and I took to wearing tricolour pins and shamrocks inside the lapels of our coats. We had discovered Catholic boys. It started with drama collaborations, early cross-community experiments that we embraced eagerly. An anxious priest watched Ladies Macbeth and Macduff strop into St Columbs College with pleated skirts rolled up at the waist and lashings of mascara.
After getting our parents to drop us off at some innocuous church youth club, we’d hitch across the border to discos in Donegal, or else head for the pubs of Waterloo Street on the edge of the Bogside. We sat in the back room of the Gweedore with our new friends, drinking pints and singing, all of us together. We sang Leonard Cohen: ‘So long, Marianne, it’s time that we began, to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about about it all again.’ We sang Only Our Rivers Run Free and didn’t blink at lines like ‘I drink to the death of our manhood, those men who would rather have died, than to live in the cold chains of bondage...’
I got a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, drank a lot, became increasingly troubled about the situation at home in the North, and returned in 1981. I needed to find my place. It was towards the end of the IRA hunger strike. Black flags getting tattered and a sense of bitter exhaustion in the air.
By this point, more than 2000 people had been killed as a result of the Troubles. The British army was now part of the street furniture, big ugly watchtowers incongrously draped with camouflage, like ivy, against Belfast’s red bricks; a vast army installation perched on top of the Black Mountain, like a spaceship.
It would have been impossible for me to live in that harsh, violent city and not get involved, and I was soon embroiled in militant feminism, setting up a centre for women who had been raped. I began to know republicans, or rather, I began to know that I knew republicans, because I now realised that some of those singing in the Gweedore bar had felt a lot more strongly about the cold chains of bondage than I had.
Some of the Protestant boys from my primary school class in Derry had done time in jail for taking part in loyalist paramilitary violence. One of them had lost a hand when a bomb he was planting had exploded prematurely. Others from the same school had joined the British army.
I’d taken to fighting with my father about politics. He’d trained the loyalist paramilitaries, I accused. He conceded that some ‘bad apples’ had probably misused their TA weapons training, but he retained his strong belief in the benefits of military discipline.
A decade into the Troubles, hatreds had been established, in which I was well out of my depth. One day I went upstairs on a bus and saw, scrawled across the back of the seat in front of me, ‘Thirteen dead but not forgotten – we got 18 and Mountbatten.’ It was a reference to the Bloody Sunday murders by the British army in Derry. The other ‘score’ referred to the murder of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten on the sea at Mullaghmore in County Sligo, and the massacre later the same day in 1979 of 18 British soldiers, in two carefully coordinated bomb blasts near Warrenpoint in County Down. The second bomb caught those who were trying to rescue survivors of the first.
Flickr/Duke Human Rights Center. Some rights reserved.
I lived in a flat in the university area, and one night we were all woken by an explosion and a man’s voice screaming out in agony: ‘Pauline!’ It was an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier who had been visiting his girlfriend. The IRA had put a bomb under his car.
The morning it was on the news that the Irish National Liberation Army had bombed the disco at the Droppin Well, near Derry, killing 17 people, I cried briefly because I knew the place, which wasn’t far from Drumahoe. Eleven of them were soldiers. The young women who died were considered fair game because they were fraternising with the enemy.
By contrast, when I heard on the news about the IRA’s bombings of London’s Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, and that some of the 11 soldiers who died had been playing in an army band when they were blown up, it didn’t enter my head to wonder if they might include musicians I’d sat beside during the 1970s.
I moved to work in Enniskillen in County Fermanagh in 1988, soon after the IRA had bombed the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph there, killing 11 Protestants whose relatives had fought in the First and Second World Wars as British soldiers. I lived in the gatelodge at Castlecoole, which was owned by the National Trust, but had a resident Lord.
I got to know a major in the Ulster Defence Regiment. We’d stand chatting at the gates of the big house. The major told me the political situation had got out of hand because the army wasn’t allowed to do its job. He had been a member of the B specials and, like many in that notorious force, when it was disbanded went straight into the UDR. ‘This could have been nipped in the bud a long time ago,’ the major told me. ‘They should have let us shoot a lot of those so-called civil rights people. That would have put a stop to it.’
A community worker I knew told me the IRA had killed a UDR man and had then put up black flags at the bottom of lanes that led to the homes of other UDR men along his road, to show them they were next.
There were a lot of UDR checkpoints. Sometimes, when I was stopped and asked by the soldiers where I was going, I’d say, ‘Derry’. The soldier would bristle. ‘You mean Londonderry,’ he’d say. ‘No. Derry,’ I’d say. ‘Right madam, if you’d just open your boot,’ he’d say, and a lengthy search would begin. Mary McConnell, whose son Micky wrote Only Our Rivers Run Free, had advice for me when I told her about these encounters: ‘Never show your teeth if you can’t bite,’ she said.
A no-go area
It was many years before I began to understand the silence in Derry the day after Bloody Sunday, and the ocean depth of the anger that swelled beneath it. In the 1990s, as a journalist, I was able to cross boundaries and ask questions. British soldiers had killed a lot of Catholic civilians, including women and children. Patricia Thompson told me about her mother, Kathleen.
‘On the night of the 6th of November 1971, I went to bed a perfectly happy child in a family,’ she said. ‘I woke up to the world turned upside down. Daddy was sitting on the stairs with his head in his hands, sobbing. Mummy was dead. She had been shot by a British soldier.’
Kathleen Thompson went on all the civil rights marches, and she raised money to give to the families of men from Derry who’d been interned. When British soldiers were spotted entering the Creggan estate, where she lived with her husband and six children, she would be one of the women who’d go out and bang her bin lid on the ground to warn people.
‘She was wild about music,’ Patricia said. ‘I remember her buying Spanish Eyes, and she’d be singing round the house and laughing. She was the one got us up for school and made our breakfast. When you came home you dropped your schoolbag and ran to see Mammy. She took us to dance classes, knitted clothes for us, polished our shoes and left them out for us. Daddy’s dinner was on the table when he got home from work. We had a good life – every summer we took a wee house in Donegal for six weeks.’
It was a normal Friday night. Kathleen’s husband, Patsy, had been out at his union meeting, and she’d brought the children to her sister’s house. Later on, after Kathleen had gone to bed, Patricia’s 12-year-old sister heard a noise on the street, looked out, and reported to her family that ‘they’ were raiding a neighbour’s house. Her father said she’d better wake up her mother.
Another of the children went to Kathleen and said, ‘Did you rattle the bin lid?’ She got up and went out the back door. Soon after that, the army fired CS gas. The family assumed that Kathleen had gone into a neighbour’s house, but when it got really late they checked. She hadn’t been there. Patsy went out and found her body lying in the back garden.
‘Thousands came to her funeral,’ Patricia said to me. ‘We were just told she’d died and gone to heaven. But we heard whispers. I never played in the back garden again; it was a no-go area, a dead zone, full of fear. As a child, you are afraid of the dead. You’d think about ghosties. There was a bullet hole in the wall, too. You’d be afraid you’d be shot.’
Kathleen’s mother had been living with the family. Profoundly shocked by her daughter’s death, she suffered a massive stroke a few weeks later. ‘She didn’t know any of us. She was like a baby. She had to be taken away to a home,’ Patricia said. ‘We sort of lost three people, because my Daddy was never the same again either. His hair went white, and he never really laughed again, not in the same way as before.’
At the inquest into Kathleen’s death, a soldier identified only as Soldier C said he’d seen a man and a woman in the Thompsons’ back garden that night, and that the man raised a rifle to shoot. He said another soldier, Soldier D, then fired two shots and the gunman fell. Soldier D said he’d heard a shot before he fired. Under the terms of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the soldiers had been interviewed by military police, a practice that rarely led to any further investigation.
Neither Patsy Thompson nor his neighbours were asked to make statements. However, witnesses later told a local community inquiry that there had been no shooting at the army, no injured or dead gunman, and that the soldier who shot Kathleen Thompson was close enough to have seen her, and to have heard her calling to one of her older children to come home.
Patricia said the army harassed her family persistently after that. ‘They did that to a lot of families, but you’d have thought that after they killed our mother they might have gone a bit easy on us. The boys were constantly arrested and held. A few weeks after Mummy died, they beat one of them up and brought him to her grave and held a gun to his head,’ she said. ‘My father was constantly on at the boys: “Don’t get involved. Don’t give them anything to say about your mother.” He must have been out of his mind with worry.’
The soldier who shot Kathleen was never put on trial. No one ever apologised to her family. ‘I don’t want anyone to go to jail. I have no desire to take some ex-soldier away from their wife or their grandchildren,’ Patricia told me. ‘I don’t want compensation. All I want is for them to acknowledge that she was an innocent person.’
It was as a reporter that I met my old classmate who’d had his hand blown off. He no longer believed in loyalist violence, he told me. He was running a cross- community horticultural project, and said he spent a lot of time talking young boys out of seeing him as a hero for what he’d done in the past.
I don’t remember hearing about Kathleen Thompson’s death at the time, although it caused controversy in Catholic Derry. And I don’t remember hearing about Henry Cunningham’s either. It happened on the road from Belfast to Derry in the summer of 1973. Henry Cunningham was 16, the same age as me, when he was shot dead. He was meant to be going on a date that night to the Lilac Ballroom in Carndonagh.
Derry people love to escape to Donegal’s lovely mountains and beaches, but in the early 1970s it was a tough place to live, and its young men had to travel to find work. Many emigrated – but Henry and his brothers had got work on building sites in Derry and Belfast.
Their van was ambushed by gunmen on the motorway just north of Belfast, and Henry was killed instantly. The others were lucky to escape death. I was introduced to Henry’s brothers in 2006, soon after they found out that it was the loyalist UVF that murdered him. They’d thought it might have been the IRA. The Cunninghams are, as it happens, Protestants, but the killers would have assumed that a Donegal registered van was full of Catholics.
Then, following an investigation of the case by the Police Historical Enquiries Team, the family found out something else. One of the sub-machine guns used in the ambush had been stolen from a TA Volunteer Reserve Centre in Lurgan in 1972. It had been used before, and was used again after Henry’s death, in yet more sectarian attacks.
Among the declassified secret documents recovered from the British military archives by human rights researchers at the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, is one that refers to this particular robbery. Written beside it are the words: ‘UVF have claimed responsibility. Collusion is strongly suspected.’
After a long interview, in which he spoke movingly about the death of his son in an IRA bombing in Derry, one British army father I met in Liverpool a couple of years ago shocked me when he said, ‘When I see the state of some of the lads that came back from Ireland, I’m glad my boy died.’
British soldiers who came to Northern Ireland at the start of the Troubles were often surprised by the friendliness of the people. Many love stories began. But the relationship with the nationalist community deteriorated fast. Republicans began to use a barbaric sort of punishment for girls who fraternised with soldiers. Their hair would be cut off, they might be stripped, tar would be poured over them and feathers thrown at them. They would be tied to railings, where their shame could be witnessed.
Bill is a former British soldier, who began his first tour of duty in Ireland in 1971, when he was just 17. He remembered finding a girl who had been punished in this way: ‘This was an 18-year-old girl who had been tarred and feathered, with her family’s endorsement, for going out with a soldier. She was naked. I had a friend who married a girl from Londonderry, and they had to move to England. She was just told she could never come back. The IRA just said, “You’re dead.” I was engaged to a girl from Londonderry myself, but it didn’t work out.’
Soldiers I’ve spoken to said they were left to find out for themselves what was going on in Ulster. Many were bewildered. ‘I was 18. My first patrol was in the Sandy Row in Belfast,’ Steve, a member of the NI Veterans Association, told me. ‘It was all people coming out and giving us tea and soda bread and calling us “our boys”. Then we went over to the Divis flats and there were televisions thrown at us, and blast bombs. We didn’t have a clue.’
Bill said that he felt that nobody had really cared about the plight of the Catholic community, but he had no sympathy for the IRA. ‘I never received any hearts-and-minds training. It was all about survival and killing the enemy, trying to second-guess the IRA. They were just criminals and terrorists. Scum. I buried three of my friends who were killed there. One of them had a premonition about it.’
Like other soldiers I spoke to, Bill said there was no counselling or specialist care for soldiers after their friends had been killed. Bill said he had mates who’d served with the army in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘At least there, you have an enemy that you can see. You can hunt him out and face him down. I never saw an IRA man with a gun. It was a terrorist war, I think, that was more stressful.
‘A lot of soldiers are very bitter. They were bitter about the prisoner releases and they are bitter about the new government. Paisley and McGuinness and their cronies are all as bad as one other – their hands are stained and their minds are the same. I came back from Ireland in a bad state. I became very insular. I was always breaking down. I had huge mood swings. I couldn’t work with people – I’d get aggressive and violent. My wife eventually dragged me to Combat Stress (a voluntary support service for ex-servicemen) and that has helped a bit. I’m a long-distance lorry driver now. I drive nights.’
On your own doorstep
Former soldier Ken Wharton has just finished writing a book called A Long, Long War: Voices from the British Army in Northern Ireland.[i] ‘These are squaddies’ voices and the book is unashamedly pro-squaddie,’ he told me. He said the experience of serving in Northern Ireland was particularly disquieting. ‘You are not talking about people being killed thousands of miles away in the desert,’ he said. ‘This was British soldiers being killed half an hour from Leeds Bradford Airport on EasyJet. This was fighting on your own doorstep. These guys were being shot on streets just like their own.’ Many soldiers had Irish connections in their families, or in their communities.
He said that when soldiers came home, traumatised or with serious disabilities, the Ministry of Defence ‘just washed its hands of them ... they used us and then they just said, “sod off”. I know one lad, and he came back to England with three bullets in his body, and had to live in a damp caravan in a quarry because the MOD wouldn’t sort out his money.’
Some of the squaddies were just out of school. One youngster described being sent out in 1971 to the scene on the edge of Belfast, where three young Scottish squaddies had been shot in the back by IRA people with whom they had unwittingly been out socialising.
It was a ‘dirty little place. Not a place one would want to die in or for,’ he said. Half-way down the lane where the atrocity had taken place, he saw, neatly placed, ‘three pint beer glasses, partially full, or empty, I never decided which.’ On the road, ‘a pool of thick, congealed blood had formed and in this blood was money ... the new coins which came out in 1971.’ The youngest of the dead soldiers was just 17. His older brother, aged 18, was also killed, and the third soldier, aged 23, was their cousin.
The soldier described how a television crew had shown up, and ‘as I was young, a friend and I started messing around for the camera, dancing and laughing ... childish shock.’
John Lindsay had shared a flat in Liverpool with some ex-soldiers and, when he moved to Derry in the 1980s, became fascinated by the soldiers all around him. After one of them was shot, he said, he’d look at the others with pity and fear. He noted, too, his own strict observance of the Derry convention that during ‘quiet’ times, you pretended not to notice ‘these armed men on the streets’. He wondered what they thought, and his book, Brits Speak Out [ii], is based on the interviews he did in order to find out.
One was with Martin, who left Northern Ireland trusting nobody, and full of pent-up anger. ‘The problems came when these expert anti-terrorist troops were let loose on “normal” streets,’ he said. He couldn’t settle in a job. He served time in prison after killing a good friend. His wife divorced him, citing ‘persistent mental cruelty’, and he subsequently set fire to his next partner’s flat, and got sent back to jail. ‘Sometimes I feel the only way I will ever cure myself is to put a gun to my head and pull the trigger,’ he said. To seek help would be ‘betraying my regiment’. Maybe, he speculates, returning to Ireland would help ‘to lay the ghosts that haunt me’.
It is clear from some of the stories in both Wharton’s and Lindsay’s collections that some soldiers were dangerously full of aggression in the first place. A former soldier called Jimmy wrote his own account of his war in Northern Ireland from Durham jail, where he was serving life for murders committed in England after his return.
Lindsay quotes him reliving his high-adrenaline, high-aggression adventures in Lurgan in 1972. The town looked like his own home town, but he quickly discovered that, in its Catholic areas, people would try to kill soldiers at every opportunity, while in its Protestant areas, people ‘wanted to see the British army wipe the Catholics off the face of the Earth.’ He and his men loved the fight. After Bloody Sunday, they cheered, and he ordered a Saracen to drive straight at a crowd who had gathered to mourn the dead.
Where toddlers roam the streets by night
The Saville Inquiry into the deaths on Bloody Sunday had to decamp to London because the soldiers who were to be questioned claimed they would be unsafe if they attended the hearings in Derry’s Guildhall. The families of the dead went along too. They were particularly incensed by one paratrooper, who said, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Can’t remember’ over 500 times in a single day’s evidence.
General Sir Robert Ford had been in charge of land forces in Northern Ireland in 1972 and led the propaganda exercise against the dead after the massacre. He gave evidence. When word went around that he was very ill, one of the Derry women said she hoped he’d die of cancer, surrounded by the ghosts of the innocent people his soldiers had murdered.
General Sir Mike Jackson, now Britain's most senior soldier, was adjutant to the paratroopers on Bloody Sunday. He directed the analysis of ‘Operation Banner’ – the name given to military operations in Northern Ireland – which was published on the MOD’s website in 2006, just before troops were withdrawn. The document was picked up by the Pat Finucane Centre and published on its website for a time. It is a most peculiar narrative, in the introduction to which Jackson writes that lessons learned ‘on the streets and in the fields of Northern Ireland’ had already been successfully exported to the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Kuwait, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The document paints a grim picture of Catholic poverty in Derry and Belfast, claiming that there were families of 14 in which five-year-olds were routinely woken up and put out to roam the streets at two in the morning so that other family members could sleep in their beds. While extreme poverty and overcrowding were certainly endemic in Catholic areas, I have never heard such a tale in my life.
It admits that the army used ‘deep interrogation techniques’ on internees, and that internment was a ‘major mistake’, but not one made by the army – the blame for that was laid at the door of the Unionist Government, for which the authors have no great respect. Astonishingly, Jackson’s analysis finds ‘only two examples of poor military decision making’ which had serious consequences. One of them was ‘the manner in which the arrest operation on Bloody Sunday was conducted using vehicles to approach the crowd’, which seemed, in hindsight, ‘heavy handed’. Not the shooting dead of 14 unarmed civilians, mind. Afterwards, according to the document, there was a lot of IRA propaganda.
There is very little reference to armed loyalism in the analysis, nor to collusion between elements of the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. By contrast, documents from the MOD archives plainly show that, for example, the government was well aware that the UDR in particular was full of loyalist paramilitaries, and that army weapons stores were, at some points, the main source of loyalist guns.
It seems that some of the ‘top brass’ are still in denial. The British government has shamelessly covered its tracks in relation to abuse of its authority in Ireland, and continues to do so.
There are numerous examples, but one case will suffice. Solicitor Pat Finucane was murdered in 1989 by a loyalist gang, most of whom were security force agents of one kind or another. The murder was presaged by a Tory government minister stating in the House of Commons that there were lawyers in Northern Ireland who were unduly sympathetic to the IRA.
Tony Blair agreed in 2001, as part of the Peace Process, to abide by the recommendations of Canadian Judge Peter Cory in relation to whether inquiries should be held into controversial murders that may have involved security force collusion. However, when Cory called for such an inquiry to be held in the case of Finucane, the government rushed through a new law that gave it enormous power to restrict an inquiry’s independence. Cory was furious, and Lord Saville, who was in charge of the inquiry into Bloody Sunday, said that he would refuse to take part in an inquiry held under such compromised terms.
In 2007, the Public Prosecution Service announced that there would be no prosecutions arising from Sir John Stevens’s finding, in 2003, that there had been collusion in the Finucane murder. The murdered man’s son, Michael, wrote that it made a perverse kind of sense. ‘After all, why prosecute someone for doing what you asked them to do in the first place?’ He said collusion was the ‘last Rubicon’ that has to be crossed before there can truly be peace.[iii] Earlier this year, the Finucanes renewed their call for a full, independent judicial inquiry.
Breaking the spell
There is no sign that the British state is ready to embark on that particular journey. However, many ordinary ex-soldiers have begun to make their own peace with Ireland. Some have done so through projects run by voluntary organisations like the Glencree Centre in Wicklow, and the Warrington Centre, set up by the parents of Tim Parry, a child killed by an IRA bomb in the Cheshire town in 1993. Others have quietly initiated contact themselves.
Steve, the man who recalled soda farls on the Sandy Row and televisions used as projectiles in Divis, said he feels the MOD has treated Northern Ireland veterans appallingly. ‘But I have no bitterness. You signed up to do a job, and you went where you were sent.’
He said he and many of his colleagues were horrified by the behaviour of the paratroopers in Derry on Bloody Sunday. Months later, he was serving in Belfast on ‘Bloody Friday’, when more than 20 no-warning IRA bombs killed nine and horribly injured many others. ‘I went to the bus station while the bombs were still going off,’ he said. ‘I saw what was left of a human being in the road.’
After that he served in Derry, and was shot and injured there. He recently returned to the city to visit the spot where his friend, also a soldier, was shot dead by the IRA. The person who accompanied him was an ex-IRA man.
‘A few years ago, Jo Dover from the Warrington Centre initiated an old soldiers’ weekend,’ Steve told me. ‘It was very moving. Most of us had come out of service, and talked to nobody about it. It was quite cathartic. Jo asked me if I’d be willing to meet ex-IRA people, so I stuck my neck out and went for it.
‘It was very strange and frightening to go back to Derry,’ Steve said. ‘I had all manner of paranoid feelings. I was afraid it was a trap. They took me to where I was shot on Bligh’s Lane. They brought me up to where my mate was killed. Obviously, I would have liked to have left a wreath, but I knew it was too soon for that. We got on quite famously. It was as if someone had broken this spell and we saw each other as fellow human beings, all of us victims of circumstances. I love the Irish – I didn’t want to stomp through their gardens and smash down their doors.’
Like several other soldiers I’ve talked to, Steve has been reading a lot of Irish history over the past few years, going right back to the seventeenth century. Although he recognises the unfairness of the pre-conflict unionist state, he is not convinced that the IRA campaign was justified.
His friend was called Tony Goodfellow. In the month following his murder, 15 other British soldiers were killed. ‘It was at a vehicle checkpoint in the Creggan in 1973. He was killed by one shot fired through a letterbox. It was a battleground. The hatred was naked. After Tony was shot, they all came out laughing and cheering and chanting.’
Private Goodfellow had been engaged to a 16-year-old Belfast girl. She had already paid dearly for their relationship. She had been tarred and feathered, and forced to move to London. Scouts from the troop to which the soldier had belonged before he joined the army had donated a cup to be awarded annually to Scouts and Guides in Derry.
After his 2007 visit to the Creggan, Steve went to a pub with some of the people from the area: ‘They asked me to join them, and we did a lot of talking. A woman asked me how I felt, kicking down doors. I said, “Not great.” I said, “Ask me how I felt when my mate was shot dead.” They said, “We’re all here for the same reason. We all need to move on.” I agree with that. I feel it’s my moral duty to take part in peace-making initiatives. I’ve also made a lot of friends in both communities. It really has been absolutely heartwarming.
‘It was like a massive weight off my shoulders to go back to Derry. Now I can see it as a normal estate, like the one I came from. Same houses, different world.’
Proud to be a Lundy
There is a profound nostalgia in unionism for the good old days, before the Catholics got uppity. When the old RUC is praised, it is for ‘gallantry’ and ‘valour’. In the late 1990s, it used to be common to see, in police stations and other public buildings, a framed photograph of Queen Elizabeth. Not the cross old Queen in her sensible shoes, though. It was always the 27-year-old Princess, smiling in diamonds on her coronation day in 1953.
I’m 50 now, and my knees creaked when I tried – strictly for their amusement – to show my daughters how to curtsey. It amazes me how archaic the unionism of those days now seems. Within a few years of that flower show, the civil rights marchers were in the square outside singing We Shall Overcome, and the old regime was teetering towards collapse, lashing out as it did so.
In 2000, my book Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People was published. I described it as ‘a portrait of the people I uneasily call my own’. I hoped to offer some insight into a much maligned community, which seemed to me, in many ways, to be obdurately and unnecessarily self-defeating. The book was popular with nationalists and republicans, controversial among unionists.
The late George Dawson, an evangelical Protestant and Democratic Unionist Party politician, then head of the independent Orange Order, said simply that no-one should read the book. The late David Ervine, of the Progressive Unionist Party, said that every Protestant should read it: it was ‘frightening and painful and true’. Some Protestants said it showed I was ‘a guilty’. One review suggested that I was full of remorse at having been born among the oppressors: that the book was my ‘act of contrition’.
Up until a few months before he took office as First Minister alongside Martin McGuinness as Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister, Ian Paisley still routinely concluded his speeches with, ‘No surrender!’ – the cry of the Apprentice Boys who shut the gates of Derry against the Catholic forces and launched the siege of 1689.
Robert Lundy was the governor of the city who argued for compromise, and was forced to flee the city by climbing down a pear tree that grew against the walls. A Protestant who favours compromise is seen to be a traitor, and is called a Lundy. I was thrilled when it was said of me. The babies of loyalist families at Drumcree used to wear bibs emblazoned ‘Proud to be a Prod’. I’m proud to be a Lundy.
Now even Paisley agrees the siege is over. The soldiers have gone from the streets of Derry and Belfast. It is time to talk about what happened to us all during those long, dark years of conflict and hatred, when we lived in the same houses, but in different worlds.
This article was first published in 2008, in the third volume of the British Council series, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined. The fourth volume was commissioned by openDemocracy Editor Rosemary Bechler this autumn. She would like to thank the British Council Northern Ireland, the British Council Ireland and the authors, for the chance to republish here a selection of articles from the series.
[i] Wharton, K. (2008) A Long, Long War. Voices from the British Army in Northern Ireland. Solihull: Helion.
[ii] Lindsay, J. (1998) Brits Speak Out, British Soldiers’ Impressions of the Northern Ireland Conflict. Creggan, Derry: Guildhall Press.
[iii] Finucane, M. (2007) ‘My dad’s murder is part of the last conflict demon,’ The Guardian, 28 June.