Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Viewpoint: How the army held the line in Ulster

From midnight, the Army's role in Northern Ireland has changed utterly - in place of Operation Banner, the longest in British military history, comes operation normality, when the 5,000 troops will be ready for deployment anywhere in the world. They can back up the police, in dire emergency, but otherwise will be training for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever the Government sends them.

Since soldiers took their first steps 38 years ago on the streets of Londonderry, on the orders of Harold Wilson, they have been an essential part of the security and, latterly, the political scene. They stepped between warring factions, in support of a battered police force, and eventually - 30 years on - were able to hand back control to the civil authorities.

There were many highs and lows during that period, marked by attacks on them by paramilitaries and infrequent targeted operations against the would-be killers. The whole truth about these skirmishes - who ordered them and who knew about them in advance - may never be known, but the casualty figures speak for themselves. There were 763 service deaths and 6,100 injuries over 38 years, carried out by anonymous attackers in civilian clothes.

Those who opposed the role of the Army and supported the attempts by paramilitaries to oust it will pick on isolated incidents of unjustified retaliation, like Bloody Sunday, to criticise it. Terrible mistakes were made, facing a brutal and elusive enemy, but in the main the Army has been a force for stability, holding the line while the politicians have slowly measured up to the task of reconciliation.

Who doubts that without the Army's presence, during the worst of the Drumcree disturbances, or without the watchtowers along the south Armagh border, the anarchy which the paramilitaries represented would have been much worse? It was only when the IRA and others realised that they were losing their wars that they chose a different political direction.

The inquiries and inquests into who killed whom and how are destined to continue for years to come, with the Army and police having to explain how the intelligence war was fought and eventually won. Unsavoury deals had to be done, in the heat of what became a long-drawn-out battle, but they are a feature of every conflict, and the Army's losses at Warrenpoint, Ballygawley and Deal must never be forgotten.

For many years, the IRA held to the belief that "one more heave" would remove the Army's presence, but they came to understand its commitment and endurance. Generals who had taken back the Falklands were never going to abandon Northern Ireland, so Sinn Fein's political re-awakening began. The Army has much to be proud of, and citizens have much to be thankful for.

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