On Thursday, 14 August 1969 I was a young soldier – only 19 with so little experience of this great big world – and I was watching a television set in a NAAFI club at a barracks in the deep south of England.
When you are a Leeds-born and bred Yorkshire boy who, prior to taking a train to Aldershot to join up in early 1967 had only left the confines of God’s own county three times, then Hampshire was the deep south.
It showed scenes – in black and white of course – of a drama being played out in a country so close you could spit across the Irish Sea and hit it – and yet it was a country of which I had never heard. That was until it thrust itself into our newspapers; our televisions; our radios and soon enough and surely enough, into our collective psyches.
That country was Northern Ireland – a country which was to have a personal effect on my life for several years… an effect on all our lives for almost 30 and it will sadly, for many, be a name synonymous with violence; tragedy; intolerance and suffering and sudden death. Did I say that it had a personal effect on my life for a few years? I will be haunted forever by the suffering of my comrades and the wonderful, innocent people of Northern Ireland who neither sought nor supported terrorism.
The net result upon the lives of the people living in both England and Ulster was the loss of more than 1,300 military lives; more than 300 police lives and well over 4,000 lives in total. It also cost billions of pounds of destroyed property and an emotional and psychological cost that can never be measured.
A close friend of mine – and, like me, an ex-soldier – said: “We were part of the solution, but we were also part of the problem.” I’m not sure that I can agree entirely with what my friend said, other than at least to partly agree that we were certainly part of the solution and the peace that was so hard-won.
The change that was won over those near 30 years of struggle with the IRA and the other paramilitaries was paid for with the blood of British troops and Ulster policemen – that same blood which stained the streets of the Ballymurphy Estate; the Turf Lodge; Twinbrook; the Ardoyne; the Creggan; the Bogside and the fields of Ulster – ultimately paved the way for freedom; the removal of fear and the ever threat of terrorist violence which, an entire new generation of Northern Irish no longer have to face.
Let us not forget either that the other c. 3,000 deaths represented an appalling civilian tragedy as the greater majority of the fatalities were not the paramilitaries. That majority of innocent bystanders included those caught in the crossfire of the bullets or the indiscriminate terrorist bombs or those slaughtered because they gave the wrong answer to that most perverted, most evil of all questions: ‘Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?’
The events of that period of time from 1969 through to 1998 – and, in some cases, beyond those arbitrary ‘parameters’ – will forever haunt Northern Ireland.
Ken Wharton is author of ‘A Long, Long War’ Voices from the British Army in Northern Ireland 1969-98‘; ‘Bullets, Bombs and Cups of Tea. Further voices of the British Army in Northern Ireland 1069-78‘; ‘Sir, They’re Taking the Kids Indoors. The British Army in Northern Ireland 1973-74‘ and ‘Wasted Years, Wasted Lives Volume One. The British Army in Northern Ireland 1975-77‘.