7 August 2012
The Scottish soldiers
dogged by accusations
It is now five years since the end of Operation Banner – the British army's campaign in Northern Ireland. It was the longest continuous deployment in the history of the army and a campaign which saw it take lives within the borders of the United Kingdom. It lost considerably more than it took. Remarkably, 'Times of Troubles: Britain's War in Northern Ireland' by Andrew Sanders and Ian S Wood (Edinburgh University Press) represents the first full-length, academic study of the campaign.
There is a veritable publishing industry – to which both authors have contributed independently and impressively – devoted to loyalist and republican paramilitary groups but the army has so far escaped sustained scholarly consideration. Mention should be made of Aaron Edwards' 'The Northern Ireland Troubles: Operation Banner' which appeared as part of Osprey's 'Essential History' series. Admirably concise and visually attractive, it nevertheless had to make inevitable concessions to contextualisation and, at only 95 pages, this limited the space for the testimonies of ordinary soldiers.
'Times of Troubles' is able to offer a richer and more compelling history of the British army's campaign in Northern Ireland. Interviews spanning several decades – some of which appeared in Wood's chapter in the 1994 edited collection 'Scotland and Ulster' – are complemented by material from regimental journals which provide humorous but unvarnished accounts. The army's antagonists are represented in the form of interviews with former IRA volunteers including Richard O'Rawe and the currently incarcerated Marian Price.
Sanders and Wood have produced an outstanding and judicious book on a topic fraught with difficulties. There is evident sympathy with the ordinary soldier as he adapted to a testing environment in which a vicious enemy usually had the initiative. This sympathy, however, does not lead to a superficial treatment of episodes which saw British soldiers take lives or behave unacceptably. One incident, which saw a mother of 12 blinded and disfigured by the needless firing of a rubber bullet, stands out as an example of violence begetting violence. A friend of one of her daughters would later join the IRA and be killed by the SAS in Gibraltar. Bloody Sunday is inevitably and rightly covered in some detail.
The authors do well to evoke the different rhythms and dangers faced by the army in Belfast, Londonderry and rural settings such as south Armagh. Similarly, different regimental characteristics come to the fore and the book does little to dispel the Parachute Regiment's reputation – captured in Kevin Myers' 'Watching the Door' – for unnecessary and provocative aggression. On the other hand they point out that only a small number of soldiers were involved in the deadly shooting on Bloody Sunday, the event with which the regiment will be forever associated.
Throughout the book there is an emphasis on Scottish regiments such as the King's Own Scottish Borderers, the Royal Highland Fusiliers and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It prompts unexpected reflections on contemporary Scotland when they disclose that Scottish regiments serving in Northern Ireland were dogged by accusations of sectarianism.
Soldiers patrolling the St James' area of the Lower Falls in the early years of the conflict would have seen graffiti reading 'Sectarian Scots get out'. Gerry Adams claimed 'Orange bigotry' was particularly strong in Scottish regiments while Marian Price said: 'In the nationalist areas, the Scottish regiments were notoriously bad, but I think that's to do with the sectarianism within Scotland, they were just appalling'. This assertion is undermined by the authors who point out that some regiments, particularly those that recruited in the west of Scotland such as the Royal Highland Fusiliers, were often as much as one third Catholic.
There is a particularly revealing quote from a Coatbridge Catholic who served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He said: 'I still can't understand how any Catholics would do what the IRA does or give them support. To me it's just terror...I'll tell you one thing, though, when I was on street patrols in Belfast I never worried about whether the boy covering me with his rifle was a Catholic or Protestant'.
The book is marked by some courageous challenges to received wisdom such as the suggestion that in the closing stages of the conflict the army was in fact in a position to inflict a decisive military defeat on the IRA. They also puncture the IRA's self-righteousness by arguing persuasively that the British army was the most effective defender of the nationalist community.
The authors are doubtful about the existence of widespread and co-ordinated collusion between the British state and loyalist paramilitaries. They argue that the IRA death toll during the conflict would surely have been much higher if this had been going on to any considerable extent. The book confirms that the more interesting questions surround the extent of the British state's involvement in ushering the republican movement to peace.
Marian Price, a vocal and long-standing critic of the current Sinn Fein leadership, offers a dramatic take on this by arguing that the SAS were used to eliminate people who might have posed a more hard-line threat to Gerry Adams' leadership. One of the conclusions to be drawn is that the 'secret war' remains arguably the last great frontier of writing on the Northern Ireland conflict. Producing such a history is likely to prove extremely difficult and encounter entrenched resistance from the various stakeholders in the peace process.
Furthermore, veteran journalist Henry McDonald recently disclosed that the Boston College-Belfast Project legal fiasco has scuppered the plans of a major London university to record the testimonies of special branch, MI5 and army intelligence officers. Peter Geoghegan, writing in the Scotsman, argued that the inevitable loss of trust 'will probably bring a premature end to oral history research into the Troubles'.
That would be unfortunate if it came to pass because 'Times of Troubles' demonstrates what is possible when oral history is deployed in the service of first-rate scholarship.
Alasdair McKillop is a PhD student in history at the University