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Back on streets where he cheated death, man who's tossed a grenade into legacy controversy

By Deborah McAleese

Published 30/01/2016

Mike on his return visit
Mike on his return visit
Michael visits the New Lodge area, where he was targeted in a grenade attack
Mike on duty in Belfast in the 1980s
Mike Harmson on duty

'It was here. The grenade landed at my feet right here. I had nowhere to run. I closed my eyes and waited to die," recalled Mike Harmson as he stood in a quiet north Belfast street.

For the first time in almost three decades the former British soldier this week returned to the spot where he was almost killed by the IRA during a day of furious rioting in August 1987.

"I remember it all clearly - I was 21," he said. "I hadn't wanted to go to Northern Ireland. None of us wanted to go. It was a horrible place at that time. Soldiers and police officers were being murdered. It was on the news constantly, but it was your duty to go there."

The 50-year-old served two years in the province as a private in the Duke of Wellington's Regiment during some of the worst days of the Troubles.

"There were many, many times, too many to recall, when someone would try to kill us," Mike said. "At the time you felt it was just another day at the office. But looking back now I realise just how lucky I was, especially that day in 1987 when the grenade landed at my feet."

It was the eve of the anniversary of internment, and his regiment had been deployed outside its barracks on the Antrim Road, just across from the New Lodge, to try and contain a violent crowd.

"There were crowds at the rear gates of the barracks," he recalled. "They were throwing stones and bricks and stuff. We were deployed outside the gates because we knew there was going to be a riot situation. All day people were saying: 'You're going to get it'.

"Crowds kept coming out throwing bricks and petrol bombs. Then, this one time, we saw a guy. He was different from the crowd - he had a green Parka with the fur, the hood up, Celtic scarf across his face, jeans, Doc Martins. Then I saw this green thing whizzing through the air and it landed at my feet.

"I heard someone shout 'grenade'. I looked down. It was a green hand grenade. I remember thinking how smooth and shiny it looked. My life flashed in front of me. It was spinning and then it stopped spinning."

Pointing towards the front door of a terrace house, Mike said: "We tried to dive for cover. I went for that doorway over there, but my colleague, a friend of mine, went for the same doorway and he got there first. I remember having this feeling: 'I have nowhere to go. This is going to go off and kill me'. I just closed my eyes and waited."

Luckily, the device failed to explode.

"I heard someone shout 'pull back'," Mike remembered. "It hadn't gone off. They hadn't primed it properly. I'm not religious or anything, but standing here today, thinking back to that moment, someone was looking out for me."

As the rioting intensified that day the Army and police were deployed into the New Lodge to try and control the violence. "It was like the Wild West," said Mike. "We were firing baton guns. The police fired so many they ran out. We were under constant attack from petrol bombs and bricks and things.

"The crowd had corrugated metal fences to use as a shield to protect the ones throwing bricks and petrol bombs.

"There were ambulances lined up to go into the estate because there were wounded people everywhere. I saw people being hit with plastic bullets going down. But they were trying to throw petrol bombs and trying to kill us. That went on most of the night. We had no sleep or anything."

Mike had another lucky escape a few months later when his patrol came under terrorist attack as they returned to barracks in west Belfast's Whiterock area.

"We were coming back from patrol and went into the briefing room," he said. "The base was very basic. All of a sudden there was a massive explosion. We dived on the floor. I remember someone screaming. Thankfully, none of us were hurt. It was an RPG7 fired at the base just as we came in to try and take us out."

In 1988 Mike was on patrol outside a shop in Chichester Street in the city centre when a bomb, hidden in a bag, exploded.

"That was another attempt to wipe us out," he said.

As Northern Ireland continues to struggle to find a way to resolve Troubles-related cases, Mike has begun to question why soldiers and police officers should be treated as forgotten victims.

"I don't think it is fair that veterans and police officers are being treated differently to other victims," he said. "I have empathy for the innocent victims. You have to treat everybody the same. What about me as a victim?

"If I had been killed in the grenade attack there would have been no public inquiry today and I would have been a forgotten victim.

"Over 300,000 servicemen and women served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

"If every one of those made a complaint to the PSNI about attempted murders, how do you think the PSNI would manage?

"Northern Ireland needs to sort this out, get it addressed. All victims deserve truth and justice, but how do we do that? Where do we draw the line in the sand?"

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