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The Freedom of Belfast would be fitting tribute to courage of 321 EOD

Twenty bomb disposal officers died in the line of duty during the Troubles and it's only right that we remember their sacrifice, says Chris Ryder

The Freedom of Belfast, the highest honour the city council can bestow, has been awarded to a stellar list of high-achievers, including Sir Van Morrison, John Hewitt and Dame Mary Peters. Sir Winston Churchill is another individual recipient.

Among organisations who have been collectively honoured are the Merchant Navy, the Royal College of Nursing, for services to the people of the city during the Troubles, and the former Northern Ireland Fire Brigade.

But there is one glaring omission from this roll of honour: the indefatigable bomb disposal officers of 321 EOD Squadron, which was raised in Northern Ireland at the outset of the Troubles and is still deployed here today on active service.

Throughout the years of conflict, the operators, as the ATOs (Ammunition Technical Officers) are known, risked their own lives, without fear, or favour, to save lives and protect property from all manner of ever more sophisticated IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), so-called to distinguish them from conventional military munitions.

Between 1969, when the unit was raised, and the terrorist ceasefires in 1994, the IRA alone exploded 16,500 bombs, ranging in size from a few ounces of explosive to some vehicle-borne bombs consisting of more than 8,000lb of explosive. Loyalist devices accounted for even more incidents.

In all the, actual destruction cost the public purse almost £1bn in compensation.

The bill would have been even more expensive if numerous potentially destructive devices had not been defused and neutralised by the cool professional skill and special kind of courage of the bomb disposal teams.

The brunt of this explosive assault over the years was borne by the 1,000 or so expert personnel (all but fewer than 10 female) of 321 EOD, many of whom served more than one tour of duty on the frontline.

In all, they dealt with an attack every 17 hours on average. Many suffered life-changing injuries, including the loss of hands, limbs and sight while another 20 were killed in action.

Not only did 321 EOD, whose radio call sign is Felix, after the cat with nine lives, become the most decorated unit in the Army, with an unrivalled two George Crosses, 36 George Medals, 75 Queen's Gallantry Medals and 200 other awards, but its innovative techniques provided the origins for the modern international template for successful bomb disposal.

Thus, more sophisticated versions of the Wheelbarrow robot, pioneered by trial and error on the streets of Belfast, have now become the standard remote-control tool internationally for defusing bombs safely from a distance, minimising the risk to individual officers.

And the Pigstick, again developed in Northern Ireland, which disrupts the control mechanisms of explosive devices by firing a pressurised jet of water into the timer and power unit, has also been widely copied for use in virtually every country facing the threat of terrorist bombing attacks.

Now, the role of the Army in Northern Ireland during the years of conflict remains one of controversy and divided interpretation. For many, it was an instrument of oppression (or worse), but for others its operations were a critical factor in deterring terrorism and preventing outright civil war. Therefore, determining whether or not 321 EOD merits the Freedom of Belfast requires the most careful, comprehensive and rigorous consideration.

By traditional convention, granting the Freedom of the City, in military terms, is an honour conferred by a city council upon a military unit, which entitles them to the privilege of marching through the city "with drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed".

However, it has to be recognised that 321 EOD, uniquely and unlike every other military formation posted to Northern Ireland, had no offensive, or defensive, role in the conflict. As one former senior member of the unit summed it up: "We did not ask who planted the bomb or why. We simply put ourselves between the device and the public and got on with the job."

Although all EOD personnel who had served here before the end of Operation Banner in 2007 received the Northern Ireland campaign medal, alone in the Army, 321 EOD Squadron remains on active service in Northern Ireland.

As the campaign of residual violence by the dissident republican groups Continuity IRA, New IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann has escalated since 2013, the bomb disposal teams have had to tackle more than 514 incidents.

In the two years to August 2015, they had to neutralise 119 devices - about one per week - as well as making safe explosives that had been found on in some 235 hides or incidents. The trend continues and 321, now headquartered at Aldergrove, continues to operate at full stretch.

Its continued commitment to preserving peace here has caused Army commanders to lobby for the General Service Medal with Northern Ireland clasp (GSM/NI) to be awarded to those currently engaged in EOD work here.

But, because Operation Banner was formerly wound up in 2007, by long-standing convention those involved are no longer classed as being "on operations" and, therefore, their "eligibility" for a medal is compromised by the fact that a formal campaign doesn't exist.

Therein lies an opportunity for all the political parties in City Hall to give real and tangible recognition to the achievements and sacrifice of 321 EOD in minimising the destruction of major landmarks and saving both life and property without fear or favour while the city was in prolonged civil turmoil.

The critical issue for all councillors is to recognise the distinction between the units engaged in counter-terrorism and the bomb disposal officers, whose role was not offensive, but one of saving life and property.

Sinn Fein councillors would obviously have difficulty endorsing such a step, but they could acquiesce in even sullen silence and enable the council to proceed.

If a body where savage intransigence all too frequently rules were to grant the Freedom to 321, it would rank as an unparalleled, trailblazing act of reconciliation and generosity and demonstrate to the world that we are not the repository of obsolete, unyielding political hostility that many believe.

  • Chris Ryder is the author of A Special Kind of Courage: Bomb Disposal and the Inside Story of 321 EOD Squadron (Methuen Publishing)

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