Belfast Telegraph

Commemoration planned for 50th anniversary of troops on Northern Ireland streets

Troops arrive in Belfast in 1969
Troops arrive in Belfast in 1969
The scene at Newry in 1985 where nine RUC men lost their lives
An army patrol at Garvaghy Road, Portadown in 1999
Two UDR soldiers were killed in an explosion on Royal Avenue in Belfast
The devastating scene at Narrow Water Castle where 18 soldiers were killed in 1979
A paratrooper on patrol in west Belfast in 1994
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Thousands of former members of the security forces are to take part in a massive day of commemorations in Co Antrim to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of troops on the streets of Northern Ireland, a deployment which started the armed forces' Operation Banner.

Upwards of 5,000 veterans are expected to remember the 2,400 men and women that the Northern Ireland Veterans Association (NIVA) say died during the Troubles.

Their figures include service personnel who were killed by terrorists and those who died in accidents, by suicide or as a result of stress-related illnesses.

The detailed plans for the day of remembrance will be unveiled soon at a news conference, but the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that the event will be staged in the garrison town of Lisburn. It was the headquarters for the longest continuous campaign in British military history after troops were sent into Northern Ireland in August 1969 to cope with growing sectarian unrest.

What was described as a 'temporary and emergency move' lasted for 38 years and only ended in 2007, long after the ceasefires by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.

Organisers say they are disappointed that the Ministry of Defence are not backing their event. They were told by the MoD that they are supporting another Op Banner commemoration which is being staged by the Royal British Legion at the National Memorial arboretum in Staffordshire on Wednesday, August 14.

NIVA's event is being held three days later. And the organisation insist that while their members are concerned about the recent charging of soldiers with historical killings in Northern Ireland like Soldier F in relation to Bloody Sunday, their commemoration on Saturday, August 17 will be a memorial, not a protest.

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The day will start in Lisburn's Wallace Park with a drumhead service before a parade around the city where wreathes will be laid at three different points including the scene of a 1988 explosion which killed six soldiers returning from a charity fun run in a minibus.

Other floral tributes will be left at Lisburn's war memorial and at a statue in honour of the UDR.

Organisers say all veterans will be welcome at the commemoration, dating right back to the B Specials and the RUC along with ex-members of the UDR and the Prison Service.

But representatives of the Garda Siochana and the Irish Army have also been invited to take part.

"It's a completely inclusive programme," said Ian Simpson, media spokesman for NIVA and the chairman of the NI Prison Service Benevolent Fund.

One of the centrepieces of the NIVA remembrance day will be the display of the names of soldiers, police officers and prison staff that died in Northern Ireland.

There will be 2,400 names on a big screen and in remembrance books, twice the number of personnel listed in official records as having been killed in terrorist attacks.

NIVA say their roll of honour also includes men and women who died as a result of suicides, accidents and stress-related illnesses which developed as a result of the Troubles.

NIVA say they are not inviting serving military chiefs or Royal family members to the Lisburn event although a retired Army general will take the salute.

Ian Simpson said: "The VIPs on the day will be the widows or the families of the people who died. All the organisations within NIVA will nominate representatives to take the salute too."

He said the decision to hold a separate memorial event here rather than to take part in the national one in England was 'because this is where it all happened'.

"There will be veterans attending both events," added Ian. "And we will still be going to a ceremony we hold every year at the Ulster Ash Grove at the National Arboretum in September. But we thought it was important to have a local ceremony to remember everyone who died or was hurt."

Organisers are hoping that upwards of 5,000 veterans will take part in the parade with 10,000 relatives and members of the public in attendance.

Tens of thousands of service personnel were injured in the conflict which saw 300,000 soldiers coming to Northern Ireland over the 38 years of Op Banner.

"Taking in the police and the UDR you are talking about half a million people who saw service," said Ian, who added that while remembrance of the dead will be the main priority, it won't be the only focus of the Lisburn event.

Old security forces vehicles and a scout helicopter will be there for people to see in the centre of Lisburn along with private collections of uniforms, decommissioned weapons and regimental memorabilia.

"We want it to be a special day," said Ian, who has urged opponents of the security forces to respect the NIVA commemoration. We will be there to remember our fallen colleagues in a peaceful and dignified way and we would ask everyone to respect our day. We are not out to offend anyone."

Organisers say the parade around Lisburn will include 12 local bands who have been issued with strict code of conduct about what is expected of them with no colour parties or flags on display.

The original hope was that the Ministry of Defence would have given their approval for military bands to take part but their permission was not forthcoming.

"We were disappointed especially as so many people who were here during Op Banner were serving the MoD and some gave all," added Ian.

He insisted that NIVA are hoping to avoid controversy on their day of commemoration, especially in the wake of the charging of retired soldiers with murder.

In a statement NIVA said: "Service personnel have to act within the law of the land. But this does not get away from the fact that veterans justifiably feel that the scales of justice are tilted against them and that the likes of Soldier F are being sacrificed as a sop to placate Republicans whose latent threat of a return to violence is seen by them as influencing government policy."

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