The Troubles I've seen
Former soldier Ken Wharton served two tours of duty in Northern Ireland in the early-1970s. Now a bestselling author, he has spent the last decade on a personal mission to stop republicans rewriting history. Ivan Little reports
A former British soldier-turned-bestselling-author has accused Sinn Fein of trying to rewrite the history of the Troubles and to whitewash the IRA's role in the conflict.
Yorkshireman Ken Wharton, who served in Northern Ireland for three years in the early-1970s, says he's on a mission with his books to stop republicans giving a one-sided account of the violence.
Wharton (68), who now lives in Australia, has also used his publications to condemn the "hounding" of elderly Army veterans over legacy killings and he's claimed that a so-called "shoot-to-kill" policy by the security forces here was a "shoot-to-survive" necessity.
Wharton says he still cries whenever he thinks of the 50 soldiers from his Royal Green Jackets regiment who died in Northern Ireland.
In his new book, Torn Apart, chronicling decades of the Troubles, Wharton refuses to criticise any actions by his ex-colleagues, or the police, though he does say Bloody Sunday was the result of the wrong Army regiment - the Paras - being in the wrong place - Londonderry - at the wrong time.
Wharton, whose first book was published in 2008, the year after he was made redundant from a job in sales, admits he's not a neutral observer and he makes no apologies for that.
The ex-squaddie from Leeds says: "I'd always wanted to write a book about the Troubles from the perspective of the security forces. And, after my redundancy, that's precisely what I did."
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
But he didn't stop with just one book. Torn Apart is his 10th tome about Northern Ireland and another one is the pipeline, with a contribution from double agent Martin McGartland, who infiltrated the IRA to act as a spy for Special Branch and who, in 1999, was shot and wounded in the English town where he had been resettled.
Wharton says he believes it's important to challenge the republican narrative, adding: "Sinn Fein have been trying to whitewash the IRA role in the Troubles in recent years and I take that as my base point.
"I want to remind everyone that there were some horrific things that went on, yet they are being erased from people's memories. And I condemn the activities of loyalist killers too.
"The families of victims of atrocities such as Shankill, Greysteel and Kingsmill will never forget the reality of what went on, but we have a new generation coming through now who are romanticising a lot of what happened on both sides in the Troubles.
"I want to combat what Sinn Fein are saying, so that people know there's more than one version of what happened in Northern Ireland over those years."
Wharton says, however, that Torn Apart is a departure from his normal style of writing.
"The other books have been like a diary, if you like. I've covered every year in detail, from 1972 right up to the ceasefires in the 1990s.
"But, with Torn Apart, what the publishers asked me to do, bearing in mind that I have been fairly partisan in my dealings with the Troubles, was for me to be a little more objective.
"And, to be taken seriously as a military historian, I felt I needed to rein in my emotions and write from a more dispassionate point of view.
"Given the subject matter, that wasn't an easy task."
Dealing with Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972, when a total of 14 civilians died as a result of shootings by the Parachute Regiment during a civil rights march, Wharton says: "I regret every single death in Londonderry, as I grieve for every innocent life that was lost. It's easy to be wise after the event and, while I won't be drawn into any criticisms of the Paras, I have always maintained that they were probably the wrong regiment in the wrong place at the wrong time."
On claims of collusion between the security forces and loyalists, Wharton says: "If there was collusion, it was certainly on both sides. There has been enough evidence now that the Provisionals had people inside the Garda Siochana and inside the Irish defence forces.
"I don't believe that collusion was as widespread in the north as has been made out by some people."
Wharton also says he's "not convinced" by claims that the Army and the RUC operated a "shoot-to-kill" policy in the 1980s to "eliminate" prominent republicans, like the eight Provisional IRA men shot dead, along with a civilian, by the SAS at Loughgall in 1987.
Republicans have always alleged that the police and Army killed a large number of suspected terrorists without making any attempt to arrest them.
But Wharton says: "I look upon the killings as 'shoot-to-survive'. And, if there was anything untoward, I think it was just human nature taking over and the security forces wanting to give the IRA and INLA a bloody nose.
"At the end of the day, I don't think there was a deep-rooted conspiracy - and I'm not being naive.
"If there really was a shoot-to-kill policy, then how was it that so many former terrorists were released from the Maze as part of the Good Friday Agreement?
"If these claims had any substance, then surely they would have all been shot, thus obviating the need for HMP Maze?"
So, is Wharton suggesting that the security forces here were totally blameless throughout the Troubles - even on Bloody Sunday?
"No, I don't think that at all," he replies. "And that's why, when I write about Bloody Sunday, I don’t condone what happened. I believe the soldiers’ officers lost control. I have listened to some of the recordings and watched the videos and I genuinely think they did lose control.
“I believe, however, that it was all sparked off by elements of the Official IRA, or the Provisional IRA, who knew what it would lead to. It was almost as if the Provisionals were acting as agents provocateurs.
“They knew, if they sparked a gun battle, that innocents would die and they could turn round to the community and say that they were now their legitimate defence force.”
If Wharton is loath to find fault with his former Army colleagues, he’s just as reluctant to say a bad word about the RUC.
“I think they were a very professional force who were in a very difficult position,” he says. “I can’t say I would have wanted to swap places with them. They were beleaguered and very much put upon and I believe the vast majority of the RUC did their damnedest to be fair and impartial and combat terrorism.
“You will get rotten apples in any barrel. And that goes without saying for every police force in the world. But, on the whole, my admiration for what the RUC withstood and achieved is immense. I will never, ever, be critical of them.”
He’s not so taciturn, however, when it comes to modern-day policing and Government policies, especially in relation to investigations into shootings carried out by the Army during the Troubles.
Several ex-soldiers have been charged in connection with killings in Northern Ireland and Wharton says: “That dismays, disappoints and angers me. We have a situation where more than 200 former, or maybe serving, members of the Provisional IRA were given comfort letters, which were effectively get-out-of-jail-free cards, by Tony Blair. Yet, we now see former soldiers being arrested and questioned by the PSNI about alleged crimes.
“It vexes me greatly that some republicans, who received these letters, are living normal lives, or are now politicians, but former members of the security forces are being investigated, while the propagators of terrorism are being allowed to get away scot-free.”
Wharton did two tours of Northern Ireland with the Royal Green Jackets before leaving the Army in 1973 to study politics at the University of Warwick.
He says he wasn’t involved in any major incidents here, though he recalls a fierce gun-battle between colleagues in his regiment and the IRA in Belfast’s Leeson Street in September 1971, when one soldier was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for outstanding bravery.
Wharton says his regiment lost 50 soldiers in Northern Ireland, through terrorism, suicides and accidents and he adds that he can’t write down any of the names of the men who died without shedding a tear.
“I don’t care if people think that I’m soft, but when I look at the names of the lads who died, I cry. That will never change.”
Wharton says living Down Under hasn’t stopped his zeal for writing books about the Troubles using a variety of methods for his research from afar.
“I have between 1,000 and 1,500 contacts of people who did tours during Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. I also use the internet extensively to carry out research and I have access to newspaper archives too,” he says.
“And among the publications that I read is An Phoblacht, the republican newspaper, because it publishes details that you won’t necessarily find in mainstream papers.
“And once you take away the bile and the bias, it’s a very useful source of information.”
Wharton insists that people who accuse him of similar bile and bias against people here are wrong, adding: “I’m not anti-Irish, or anti-Catholic, and I like to believe that, in my writing, people will see I abhor the loyalist killer gangs that were operated by the likes of Johnny Adair.
“I do not restrict my opprobrium, my loathing and contempt to just the IRA and the INLA. Throughout all my books, you will see a very vivid condemnation of the UFF, the UVF, the Red Hand Commando and the LVF.
“My heart goes out to all the innocent people who died during the Troubles.”