At a social event in England I find myself chatting to a hearty man, a grandfather, with Yorkshire’s flat vowels and plain-speaking tendencies. He’s a capable kind of person—the sort you can imagine taking charge in an emergency. When he hears my accent, he volunteers the information that he did four tours of duty in Northern Ireland with a British infantry regiment. He was among the first batch to arrive at the start of the Troubles, back when the soldiers thought they were temporarily there as peacekeepers. They’d be in and out without getting their feet wet.
For quite some time, he said, the troops understood a military presence was destined to be short-term. Even when weeks stretched to months and the situation grew more volatile rather than less. But as for believing their role was one of maintaining the peace between warring factions—that misconception vanished like a snow flurry on the volcanic slopes of the political landscape. It soon became apparent that unionists saw them as their protectors, while nationalists regarded them as provocative.
“At first, when we went on foot patrol in Belfast in 1969, we only had batons—no rifles,” he recalls. “They came later. Batons were useful for scattering people who shouldn’t be congregating. We’d start thumping the batons against our equipment when the crowd was squaring up to us. They thought it was to intimidate them, to tell them to back off. But really it was as much for our own sakes. To keep our courage up.”
Why shouldn’t people gather in their own community, I ask? And isn’t it possible that a phalanx of soldiers in combat gear hobnailing up your street might increase the throng – and its antagonism? He shrugs. Not batting away my questions, exactly. But he doesn’t have any answers. He’s recounting his experience, not analysing it, I suppose.
I half-expect him to change the subject, or move away, but he seems to want to talk about Northern Ireland. It strikes me that perhaps such opportunities are scarce. There was a time when I wouldn’t have met a soldier socially. And even supposing tectonic plates shifted and I did encounter one, he never would have discussed his occupation with someone like me.
The image of batons hammered on riot shields fills my mind. As a reporter, towards the end of the Troubles, I’ve found myself in the middle of civil disturbances; behind protest lines, as police in full riot gear form into tight-packed lines, standing at the ready, intent—and charge. It is a terrifying experience.
Mentally, I add the beat of batons against riot shields. It must be an atavistic sound. A warlike drumbeat. Inevitably it pumps the blood.
I put another question to this former soldier drinking tea in front of me. Perhaps the sound of the batons incited people to riot? Wouldn’t that thud-thud-thud incentivize them to let fly with bricks, or rocks, or concrete slabs—whatever it was they heaved at the soldiers before the order was given to charge and people scattered?
We continue in this vein in a tone that’s conversational, never tetchy. The man, let’s call him Corporal Atkins, takes no umbrage at anything I put forward. He’s reaching back almost 50 years into his memories. He must have been nineteen or twenty when he was posted to Belfast first.
As for me, I’m remembering my childhood in the town of Omagh, some seventy miles from Belfast and twenty miles from the border with the Irish Republic. Images swim through my mind. Seeing battalions of soldiers clatter past in armoured vehicles; they suddenly emerge from a field as you walked by, faces blackened and twigs sticking out of their helmets as camouflage; roll out razor wire for cordoning off places into no-go zones. Always with weapons in their hands.
“When we’d go out on patrol into the Catholic areas, the women would bang bin lids to warn we were coming,” says Corporal Atkins. “It brought people out onto the streets. They’d send little boys and girls to the front of the line to throw stones at us and we couldn’t retaliate against children. The men at the back were passing up the stones to them.”
Was that when you realized you weren’t independent peacekeepers after all, I ask?
“We got that within weeks,” he admits. “And that one community felt very differently towards us compared with the other. We knew when we were in a Protestant area or a Catholic area. But we couldn’t easily tell the difference between the two sides.” The people looked and sounded identical to the soldiers.
Troops must have been issued with rifles fairly quickly, I say. I don’t remember ever seeing a soldier without one: the way they cradled them against their chests as they patrolled in single file, eyes on constant flicker. Those firearms fascinated my brothers and male cousins who grew adept at identifying the make of weapon and what it could do when fired. But they frightened me. I saw how adults reacted to them. How they stiffened, staring at the guns. Looking away. Eyes dragged back again. Rifles cleared a space between the person who held one and the person who didn’t. I don’t say any of this to Corporal Atkins. I simply point out that I never saw a uniformed soldier on the street without a rifle.
“They weren’t prepared for what happened, the top brass,” he responds. “They thought Northern Ireland would be sorted out in no time. Then when they realized it wasn’t as easy as that, we were given automatic rifles when we left the barracks on patrol. But they were too powerful, those rifles. Their bullets were able to go through the walls of a house—they weren’t suitable for city streets.”
So innocent people would be killed, I suggest. Someone drinking a cup of tea, or lying in bed. Possibly children.
In fact, we know this happened—it was called ‘collateral damage’.
He nods. There’s a pause.
But most of the deaths during the Troubles were caused by the IRA, I add.
The corporal changes tack. “When we arrived in 1969 we weren’t properly equipped. We didn’t have the right kit or anything. There wasn’t even enough barracks accommodation for us. We were living in all sorts of unsuitable buildings, damp old barns of places. The best place was during the summer when they moved us into the student rooms at Queen’s University.” The corporal smiles at his college experience. In another life, perhaps he might have been a student himself instead of a kid from the north of England who felt like the enemy on a Belfast street.
“I used to drive an armoured personnel carrier. You knew all about it if it was fired on – the noise ricocheted around inside the vehicle, much louder than it was outside. Once, I pulled the hatch down a split second before a sniper’s bullet hit it. I was that close”—he holds his thumb and index finger a millimetre apart—“to being a goner”.
The vehicle would be parked up in the Ardoyne and we’d be looking down on an area we called Catbone. I didn’t stay inside the vehicle. I’d get out and try and talk to people. Not everybody wanted to talk to me but some people answered when I spoke to them. By and by, they got used to me and you could strike up a conversation.”
Ardoyne is in North Belfast, a mainly nationalist working class area bordered on one side by the largely loyalist Crumlin Road. Conflict during the summer marching season has been a frequent occurrence there—the Orange Order insisting its parades follow traditional routes, the Catholic community objecting on the basis it finds them triumphalist.
Why Catbone, I interject?
He looks sheepish. “Catholic bones. Anyhow, we’d get talking and sometimes people would give me little bits of information.”
For money, do you mean – as informers? Touts, in the local parlance.
He shakes his head. He didn’t hand over cash. But he did hear crumbs: details about people, activities, places. Nothing outstanding if taken in isolation. But when I press him, he says he passed on whatever he heard to his superiors who pieced it all together and found it useful. Corporal Atkins adds that the people who chatted with him didn’t always grasp the significance of what they were saying.
If so, they were babes in the wood, I observe.
He doesn’t answer.
Silently, I wonder if any of those people who let slip a random fact to the friendly young man in uniform of almost half a century ago—still pleasant today—paid for it with their lives.
I ask him what I think will be my last question. How do you feel about your time in Northern Ireland now, in hindsight?
Contempt settles on a face which has been genial until this point—even as we ranged from riots to ricocheting bullets.
“The politicians were muppets. Out of their depth. They should have struck a deal in the first year instead of letting it all spin out of control. Some of our commanding officers weren’t much better. I remember one lad, fresh out of Sandhurst. I had to charge into the middle of a hostile crowd and rescue him by the scruff of his neck. He didn’t realize he couldn’t walk among them like he was doing. He hadn’t copped they saw him as the enemy.”
The British Army was deployed in Northern Ireland from 1969-2007. Operation Banner, as it was called, was the longest continuous operation in British military history with more than 250,000 people serving across a 38-year span.
At the peak of the Troubles, in the 1970s, 21,000 troops were stationed in the region. Their role was to uphold British sovereignty and assist the armed, local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), now disbanded and reformed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). In addition, a new, locally recruited infantry regiment, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), was established.
It was almost wholly Protestant and, despite vetting, was penetrated by loyalist paramilitaries to gain arms and training; this has been proven by documents held in Britain's National Archives which also reveal political and military acceptance of collusion between serving soldiers and loyalist extremists. Corroboration is found in an intelligence dossier entitled 'Subversion in the UDR'. It includes a report noting the "best single source of weapons, and the only significant source of modern weapons, for Protestant extremist groups has been the UDR." The file estimates that between five and fifteen per cent of the regiment had close links with loyalist paramilitaries. Another document relates how Margaret Thatcher, as opposition leader, was warned in a briefing by Downing Street that the UDR was heavily infiltrated by paramilitaries.
The Provisional IRA, known as the Provos, waged guerilla war against the British army, the RUC and the UDR. Some 1,441 serving personnel died during Operation Banner, half because of paramilitary attacks and the remainder from other causes, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defence.
Northern Ireland’s unionist government, which requested the armed forces’ presence in 1969, was convinced heavy militarization was essential and resisted any downscaling – even following the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. For three decades, Northern Ireland became a security state and the population lived in what was effectively a war zone.
But here’s the thing. All-pervasive security and a feeling of being safe are mutually exclusive.
He hadn’t copped they saw him as the enemy. That phrase rang in my head after the corporal and I parted company. Hands up, that’s how I regarded soldiers when I was a child, an attitude I absorbed from my community. No one said so explicitly. You gathered it from overheard snatches of adult conversation, the strain caused by the sight of them, the scrupulously polite way any grownups I knew interacted with them—expelling their breath afterwards as though placed under exceptional strain.
Violence, I was given to understand, was wrong—my parents admired John Hume and the civil rights demonstrators. But it was clear that they resented the highly visible military presence on the streets of our towns and villages, buzzing above us in helicopters, staking out the border between the North and the Republic with watch towers and listening posts.
Indeed, the Troubles presented a moral challenge for many nationalists: how to respond to blatant injustice by the State against its own citizens? How to press for reform without being sucked into violence by the savage response of the authorities to civil society campaigns? Bloody Sunday was a case in point. How well I remember the storm of emotions caused by that massacre of civil rights protesters in Derry on January 30th, 1972.
Derry was the small city I associated with Christmas shopping. We’d travel there on the bus, thirty miles each way, my mother and sister and me, to choose presents and admire the lights. One year, maybe the Christmas before Bloody Sunday, I bought a ballerina angel for the top of the tree with my pocket money – I have her still, a little the worse for wear, like all of us.
Bloody Sunday ranks among the most controversial episodes of the Troubles, when soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians taking part in a demonstration against internment without trial. Twelve days earlier, all marches had been banned in Northern Ireland for the rest of the year, meaning the protest was illegal.
The authorities were expecting rioting and had sent in paratroopers, known as the Paras (members of the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment), who had already gained a reputation for using excessive force before being deployed there. They ran amok in the Bogside. Some twenty-six people were shot, thirteen killed outright and a fourteenth died of his injuries in hospital.
I sat with my family watching the footage on the news that evening. Probably, I had homework on the go, with the television playing in the background. News bulletins were a constant backdrop to my childhood and I didn’t always pay much attention to them. But I know I stopped what I was doing on this occasion because of the shock caused by the reports. I’d have looked up, not quite understanding everything but catching the drift. The panic. The cries. The pandemonium.
The image of Father Edward Daly, crouched over, waving a blood-splattered handkerchief as a white flag, is not one easily forgotten. Two years later, by now Bishop of Derry, I would see him in mitre and robes conducting confirmations in our church a few streets away. Here on the news, however, he was leading a group of ashen-faced men carrying a dying 17-year-old youth. The handkerchief fluttered. The blood on it was scarlet—fresh. Soldiers in combat gear, rifles at the ready, flanked the party, watching them—conveying the sense that at any moment they might lift those weapons, take aim and fire.
Next, Father Daly had a microphone held under his chin. A reporter peppered questions. He kept insisting the shot teenager had been running away.
No, he wasn’t firing at the army. No, he did not pose a threat. He was only a kid. He wasn’t doing anything. People weren’t even throwing stones at the soldiers. I know what I’m talking about—I was there when the Saracens arrived, he said.
Young as I was, I knew what a Saracen looked like. They were six-wheeled armoured fighting vehicles equipped with machine guns and portholes on the sides from which troops fired.
I remember my parents, grave-faced, tuning in to every news bulletin. Their whispered conversations. The pervasive sense of threat. The general mood was that the rule of law wasn’t going to protect the nationalist community—that soldiers were dangerous, could act with impunity and might (indeed, would) shoot at random. As for that iconic picture of a priest holding his blood-splashed handkerchief in a flag of truce, while attempting to evacuate a wounded boy: that became a symbol of the Troubles.
Amid the all-pervasive shock in my community, a spike of approval poked through the gloom when Bernadette Devlin gave the British Home Secretary a clatter. The fiery young Member of Parliament for mid-Ulster—our constituency—was reacting to his shameless whitewash of Bloody Sunday events. Stop demonising us, that slap seemed to say. Stop denying our common humanity. And don’t expect us to lie down for you to walk over us.
Bernadette Devlin, later McAliskey, was part of the civil rights movement and is depicted on a Bogside mural under the slogan ‘You are now entering Free Derry’—where barricades had been erected to keep police and soldiers out. She was in the area when the paratroopers started shooting. Now, in London, she took exception to Reginald Maudling, who hadn’t been present, telling the House of Commons on behalf of the government that soldiers fired in self-defence. Devlin tried to give her version of events but the Speaker wouldn’t allow it. Incandescent, she called the Home Secretary a “murdering hypocrite” and crossed the Westminster chamber’s floor to strike him on the face.
In Derry, as in other cities, towns and villages across Ireland, people burned with a shared sense of injustice at the Bloody Sunday violence—and in Northern Ireland, with a fear that similar, state-supported carnage might be visited on us. A national day of mourning was held in the Irish Republic and the Irish government also withdrew its ambassador to Britain. A crowd besieged the British embassy in Dublin for days, the ambassador and staff had to be evacuated, and the embassy was set ablaze and destroyed on the day when eleven of Derry’s dead were buried. The Irish government apologized for the attack and agreed to pay compensation.
Meanwhile, Lord Widgery, a former army brigadier, was appointed to investigate Bloody Sunday. He sat alone. His tribunal exonerated the armed forces, blaming the tragedy on the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association for organizing an illegal match. The Widgery report claimed there was a “strong suspicion” that the victims had either fired weapons or handled bombs—a judgment which angered the nationalist community because there was no evidence to back it up, whereas independent eyewitness accounts indicated the opposite. Lord Widgery also accepted the soldiers’ accounts that they had only returned fire. One paratrooper shot between four and six of the victims and claimed he had fired on a “nail bomber.” His Lordship’s sole criticism of the soldiers was that firing “bordered on the reckless” at times.
The inquiry was counterproductive. It settled nothing. Bloody Sunday acted as a recruiting agent for the IRA and increased hostility towards the British Army, contributing to the duration of the conflict. No British soldier had been wounded or reported injuries as a result of Bloody Sunday. No nail bombs were recovered. Meanwhile, teachers took to wagging a finger at us when any classmate offered up an untruth. “Don’t be telling Widgeries,” we were warned.
It took almost forty years before the lie was recognized. Lord Saville was appointed by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to conduct an independent investigation, a marathon undertaking which finally concluded in 2010 that all who died were innocent. Soldiers had lied under oath. No warnings were given before they opened fire on unarmed civilians. David Cameron, as Prime Minister of Britain, made a formal state apology saying Bloody Sunday was “both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”
Bishop Daly always kept a photograph on his desk of that dying teenager. His name was Jackie Duddy, he was a textile worker. When he saw him fall, he crouched down to give him the Last Rites before attempting to have him moved for medical attention. By the time the priest led four men with Jackie in their arms past the soldiers, the boy was dead. He took his final breath as the cameras clicked and rolled and the paratroopers looked on. He had been shot in the back.
A generation has grown up for whom the Troubles are history—as remote as those grainy images of the first man walking on the moon, or newsreel of the concentration camps being liberated. These people can afford to take the peace process for granted. But not me. My memory stretches beyond that 1998 breakthrough, slip-sliding into years that cast a shadow across my childhood.
Don’t misunderstand me. It was also a happy upbringing in Omagh. Yes, that Omagh. The place where the centre was blown to kingdom come, with the ink barely dry on the Good Friday Agreement, by dissident republicans bent on subverting the peace process. But the place, too, whose Catholic and Protestant communities crossed the invisible tribal divide to support one another in the aftershock of massacre.
The centre held, Mr Yeats.
Children adapt to anything. To the sight of army foot patrols passing by the bottom of their garden. To the blare of sirens interrupting their sleep. To roadblocks springing up without warning—identities checked, car boots searched.
“Those checkpoints spout like weeds,” grumbles my father, but he is mannerly with the military personnel controlling them. No point in looking for trouble. We’re on a journey, maybe to the seaside in Donegal, the car is flagged down, an armed boy in a helmet inserts his head through the driver’s window and—improbably—calls my father ‘dad’.
“All right, dad, where you ’eaded?”
Lately, I’ve wondered if one of those soldiers wasn’t Corporal Atkins.
The highly visible presence of armed security forces were the trappings of our everyday life. Normality was under constant siege. Even if today was quiet, no guarantees about tomorrow were possible. Research suggests such an environment had most impact on children and young people. The message absorbed was that violence was random, some adults were dangerous and the world was an inherently unsafe place.
As a child, I was never told to find a policeman if I was lost. I didn’t know anyone who was given that advice.
Here’s a memory from the Troubles. It’s a Sunday morning and I’m taken on an outing by my uncle to call on friends of his in Lurgan, an hour or so away. The family we’re visiting has a nine-year-old girl, our birthdays a few months apart, and we two are sent to the playground. Outdoors, she hints at something more impressive to show me. There’s a place, she says, where money is lying on the ground, waiting—no, begging—to be lifted.
Naturally I follow where she leads. A few streets away, we begin to pick our way through shattered glass clumped across the pavement and road. Around us, the window of every building is demolished.
“There was a riot last night.” She is blasé. Observing my astonishment, her tone shades into pity. “Don’t you have riots in Omagh?”
Ashamed on its behalf, I admit to Omagh’s lack of riots.
She finds a stick and uses it to sift through the broken glass. “Look, there’s one!” She ducks down and a fifty pence piece is held aloft.
The seven-sided coins are strewn through the wreckage. In the rioters’ hands they became weapons, hurled, pointed-side out, to break windows. I delve for some of this booty lying, literally, underfoot but fail to find any—handicapped by my lack of previous experience at scavenging. Meanwhile, my guide rummages up several more fifty pence coins and, in a spirit of comradeship, gives me one.
By now, older children are gathering to forage, and she advises that we’ve had the best of the pickings. I am overwhelmed by her worldliness. We’ll be friends forever.
At home that evening, I display my loot to my parents, expressing the hope that Omagh might improve its game in relation to rioting. Or failing that, could we move to Lurgan? Tension quivers in the air. My father and mother exchange glances. I am marched into the sitting room to deposit the coin in the Trócaire charity box and a lecture follows. Firstly, that metal disc represents ill-gotten gains and will not be spent in Mrs Quinn’s sweetshop. Secondly, Lurgan is out of bounds—the new friendship is about to wither. Thirdly, I am to thank my lucky stars I live in a town where people have more respect for hard-earned money than to use it for smashing windows. Fourthly, it’s high time I was in bed.
Years later, I discovered that the twig held by Britannia on the reverse of a fifty pence piece is an olive branch. An irrelevant factoid. Except if you’ve experienced that same coin’s use for rioting.
In excess of 3,500 deaths occurred as a result of the conflict. Premature death, causal death, bloody death became quotidian. Nearly half of the total killings within Northern Ireland took place in Belfast. Nine in ten of the dead were men, with younger age groups most at risk. Some 257 were children and those under seventeen.
The 1970s were particularly bloody, with 480 people dying in 1972 alone, according to CAIN, the Conflict Archive on the Internet—the year when Bloody Sunday happened. Figures can be anonymous. But behind each number is a face.
The political incompetence and downright stupidity are what strike me most. How else to explain that avoidable, wasteful loss of civilians, soldiers and police officers alike? If civil rights had been extended when lobbying started—if British law had only been applied to Northern Ireland in exactly the same way as it was delivered in any English, Scottish or Welsh city—there would have been virtually no support among the population for violence. Instead, the situation was mishandled and grievances ratcheted up.
However, the Good Friday Agreement has transformed Northern Ireland. I do not claim it is a paradise but it is peaceful, despite rumblings from dissident republicans. They do not attract support among the community from which they spring.
Corporal Atkins sees me put on my coat and crosses the room for a final word. As we say goodbye, I ask him one remaining question. Have you been back? In peacetime, I mean?
He says no. There are days when he thinks he’d like to take a look but, on balance, maybe not. Too much water under the bridge. Sometimes it’s best simply to keep looking ahead.