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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

*

Nobody knows The Troubles I’ve seen
in Northern Ireland

By the time my fellow passengers had drifted away I had narrowed it down to two men. Either the nondescript fellow with darting eyes, a blue raincoat and shiny shoes was here to meet me, or the burly one in cords, a well-worn tweed jacket and burnished brogues was.

 

I approached the country squire. “Major X?” I asked.

 

He smiled. “You must be our new recruit,” he said. “The reporter.”

 

“Rich…” I began, holding out a hand.

 

“Not here,” said the Major.

 

He led me out of the airport building to his car, a sturdy Rover, and we got in. “Now,” he said, “Belfast is a dangerous city, especially if you’re English, even more if you’re with me, so best not to advertise it. Would you know what to do if we were attacked by terrorists?”

 

This was circa 1972 and the Troubles were building. “No,” I confessed.

 

Major X leant across and opened the glove box. I looked inside. There was a large Service revolver, gunmetal-blue, a sheen of oil on the moving parts.

 

“Right,” I said. Shit, I thought, I’ve been in Belfast for about ten minutes and already I’m preparing for Gunfight at the OK Corral.

 

He drove me around the grim, grey city of back-to-back terraces under glowering skies and never have my survival instincts worked harder. I watched the mirrors and side roads with mounting paranoia.

 

Looking back, I think he must have confined his guided tour to the Loyalist areas. I knew, of course, that Belfast was a divided city: Loyalists and Republicans, Protestants and Catholics. But I hadn’t realised that the divisions were so literal; that one tribe’s reservation could stop at the end of the road.

 

You might even be met there by a breeze block “Berlin Wall” and murals that signalled this part of town was run by the other side.

 

After this eye-opener, the Major headed for Gosford Castle in County Armagh, the barracks for units of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers on their tour of duty in Northern Ireland. The castle looked for all the world like a Norman fortress from the Middle Ages.

 

But it was built for the Second Earl of Gosford and finished in 1859. Since then, it has been a storage unit for public records, a hotel, private homes – and fans of Game of Thrones will recognise it as a location for the third series of the TV blockbuster.

 

These days you would say that I was embedded with the Lancers but I don’t think the term was used in Britain back then. The regiment recruited in Northamptonshire and so the Evening Telegraph in Kettering sent me to report on their spell at the sharp end.

 

It was an unusual assignment – normally such attachments are a cross between a public relations exercise and a recruitment poster. But this one had a whiff of danger and excitement. It was life at the front line.

 

The 9th/12th Royal Lancers was a cavalry regiment, as the name suggests, but it had put the horses out to graze and now used armoured cars. Its mission was to keep the lid on IRA activity in South Armagh, which was known as Bandit Country.

 

I was surprised at how much I was allowed to see. I went out on patrol, sat in the back of Land Rovers with the squaddies, took orders from the officers. Once, as we approached the border with the Republic, we stopped so that I could take off the Army tunic I had been given to wear.

 

“Up in those hills,” said the patrol commander, pointing into the Republic, “they sometimes station snipers with American-made rifles that can kill you from anything up to a mile away, maybe more. If you’re wearing civvies, then a sniper might think we’ve lifted a suspect and… well… not shoot you.”

 

They were pretty sanguine about the risks they faced and the men who posed them. Fifty-eight police officers and 124 British soldiers were killed in South Armagh during the Troubles, many of them around Crossmaglen, a small town near the border.

 

Every time we approached it, a strange thing would happen, which I was urged to watch for. Crossing the square to take the road to the south, we would see a man scuttle from a shop, jump into a fawn-coloured car and race off ahead of us.

 

“He’s going to tell the Boys (the IRA) that we’re coming,” said the officer. “Bring it on,” said a voice from the back of the Land Rover.

 

Their job was hugely frustrating. Even if there was contact, the enemy could melt away to the haven of the Republic. British troops were forbidden to follow.

 

That at least was the theory. But I remember later subbing stories for the Daily Express about an SAS patrol that was arrested by Irish police after “accidentally” crossing the border.

 

It was never revealed what they were doing there but the police listed the weapons they were carrying – and it included a sawn-off shotgun. The captured soldiers claimed it was a map-reading error but it caused a blazing diplomatic row.

 

Controlling soldiers, I discovered on this trip, is a nightmare. You would think that, with discipline so instilled in them, it would be easy. But the same qualities that make them good soldiers also make them arsey, aggressive and up for trouble. Ask anyone who has lived in a garrison town.

 

I was with Major X (I’m not being all secret squirrel, I just don’t remember his name after half a century) when he arrived at the castle without his ID.

 

“Sorry, you can’t come in,” said the guard, barring his way.

 

“Don’t be silly, Corporal, you know bloody well who I am.”

 

The corporal snapped his rifle across his chest. “No one passes without ID.” A small pause, then he added: “Sir.”

 

He was enjoying this. He was also too far down the road to stop. If he let the Major in, he would be on a charge for… letting the Major in without ID. If he didn’t, his life was shaping up to be a misery.

 

The Major confirmed this in a quiet, menacing tone. “I am your senior officer, soldier. Stand aside.”

 

The situation was finally defused by a passing officer who ordered the guard to stand down. He stepped aside and flashed a little grin as I passed.

 

I saw this relish for confrontation again when I was in the back of a Land Rover as we passed through a village called Coalisland in County Tyrone. It is a former mining town, staunchly Republican and at that time an IRA stronghold.

 

We stopped on the outskirts for a briefing by the officer in command. “We’re going through at speed,” he said. “Don’t stop for anything. If anyone pulls in front of you, knock him out of the way and keep going.”

 

As we entered the village, the streets filled with women and children – not a single man among them – all jeering insults and beating out a racket with a spoon on a cooking pot. Some of the children were as young as three.

 

A soldier pulled aside the canvas cover on the Land Rover, made a lewd gesture and shouted: “Fuck off, you Fenian bastards.”

 

I picked up an exclusive story on this assignment. But like many an exclusive, I could only have it if I promised not to print it.

 

I was taken to a shooting range where a soldier demonstrated the use of rubber bullets, one of the tools police and troops used to control rioting. They were hopelessly wayward. Once fired, it was a matter of luck where they went. They veered left or right and seldom hit the target they were meant for.

 

Police often aimed them at the ground in front of a mob. The idea was that they would hit the legs, temporarily disable a rioter and slow the crowd’s progress. But it was not unusual for people to be hit in the face and sometimes blinded.

 

So the Army had an alternative, never before seen in the UK: The plastic bullet. It was harder, more accurate and it hurt like hell if it hit you. The soldier demonstrated again.

 

He took aim at one of the targets, plywood torsos on stakes stuck in the ground. He pulled the trigger and launched the plastic projectile, which was the shape of a shotgun cartridge but slightly bigger. It splintered the plywood and passed straight through. I began to see why they did not want me to write about this.

 

I was born in Croydon and brought up in Corby. No regrets, but a childhood like that equips you more for the mean streets than for the officers’ mess.

 

They looked after themselves, the commissioned officers of the 9th/12th. Silver, bone china, Dover sole. So far, so good: I could use a knife and fork.

 

But nobody told me about the arcane conventions that governed conversation at the table. One was expected not to talk about women or politics. So, it was perhaps unfortunate that I chose to witter on about Margaret Thatcher.

 

Religion was a legitimate topic, though, and my ears pricked up when someone mentioned that the people who knew most about the IRA – who the leaders were, and the killers – were Catholic priests.

 

They’re men of God, I thought. Why aren’t they turning in bombers, torturers, gunmen, extortionists? The IRA were all of these things – gangsters, pure and simple. As always with religion and politics, especially in Ireland, it’s complicated.

 

But the Lancers arranged for me to meet a couple of these troublesome priests in sit-down interviews. If I was expecting Catholic guilt or shame or evasion, I got none of these. The priests thought they were on the side of the angels and so had nothing to feel guilty about.

 

When I asked why they stayed silent and supported murderers they shrugged and smiled enigmatically. One even spoke of “freedom fighters”. Conscience didn’t bother them but I don’t suppose it kept the French Resistance awake at night either.

 

Chatting with these men made me think of the tortured characters in Graham Greene’s novels, especially the “whisky priest” in The Power and the Glory. But it didn’t shed much light on the IRA. It made a good story, though.

 

At some point, I got down to the day job, which was to speak to squaddies who had been recruited in our circulation area. Never had it been easier to arrange an interview. I mentioned it to an NCO and soon afterwards there was a knock on the door of my caravan in the castle courtyard.

 

When I opened it, there were five soldiers standing there. No one said, “Reporting for interview, Sah!” and stamped to attention – but that was the vibe. One of them took the lead and introduced his mates: “He’s from Wellingborough… Rushden… Northampton.”

 

I invited them all in, made tea and got started. I soon had a notebook brimming with quotes, anecdotes, hopes, fears and messages to the folks back home. Enough for three pieces in the evening paper with plenty left for the weeklies.

 

Reporting from Northern Ireland was a defining experience for me, It helped me to grow up – and into the job. And I wasn’t entirely wrong about the bloke in the blue raincoat with the darting eyes. I was told later he was from the Security Service.

 

That was Ulster back then: full of spooks, danger, intrigue and stories. They say it’s better now.

 *****

It’s time someone spoke up for the copper in the shabby and contrived row about the Jewish man at the Moslem march. His bosses aren’t going to, so allow me.

 

He is, I think, a decent man who was trying to do his thankless job in an even-handed way. On one side, Muslim marchers with hatred in their hearts. On the other, a Jewish disruptor, affronted by the march and out to cause mischief.

 

The policeman in the middle did not choose his words especially well, telling Gideon Falter, 40, who is chief executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism: “You are quite openly Jewish.”

 

But his artless approach to the simmering situation is contained in the words he said next: “I’m not accusing you of anything but I’m worried about the reaction to your presence.”

 

The response from the Metropolitan Police was muddled and as thick as a piece of 4x2 from B&Q. They didn’t know where they stood, when of course they should have been right behind their officer.

 

Instead, they first apologised for his words but said opponents of the march “must know that their presence is provocative”. The Met then withdrew the apology and said that being Jewish “is not a provocation”.

 

A day later, having un-apologised, they re-apologised. What a sorry bunch they are.

 

Meanwhile, Falter was given a platform in the Sunday Times to call for Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley to resign, saying that central London was now “a police-enforced Jew-free zone”.

 

The affair points up two things: No one has the slightest respect for the police any more; and what sane man or woman would want to run the force now? It’s the job from hell.

 

I blame Sadiq Khan. He’s the Police and Crime Commissioner for London. When it suits him.

 *****

 The features pullout of The Times yesterday (Monday) promised to lift the lid on “what really goes on in Ibiza”. Apparently, it’s drugs, sex and dancing. Who knew?


RICHARD DISMORE


23 April 2024