Belfast Telegraph

Traumatised after being injured, haunted by faces of murdered colleagues - Play gives voice to ex-UDR and Royal Irish members

Historian and writer Philip Orr passionately believes the stories of those who served in the security forces during the Troubles must be told, and reveals how his powerful new drama, Beneath The Harp And Crown, is based on their real-life accounts

More than 62,000 men and women served in the Ulster Defence Regiment or the home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment during our local conflict. Over 270 of these soldiers were killed, some after they had left the forces. All of them experienced stress and strain and some were left with serious physical disability and/or mental trauma.

While the British squaddie on the customary tour of duty could retire to the relative safety of the barracks and then, when it had ended, head back across the Irish Sea or onwards to a tour of duty in Germany, the UDR or R Irish man remained on full alert - arguably even more vulnerable when out of uniform, whether at home or at work, than when on patrol. The impact of those years spent on a perilous 24-hour front-line is still being felt today.

For the UDR/R Irish veteran there are many memories of life lived according to strict safety routines. As well as the obligatory check beneath the motor vehicle for explosive devices, there were many other precautions.

'Always sit in a restaurant with your back to the wall, facing the door and with your personal protection weapon easily accessible'.

'Always reverse into a car-park parking space so as to make a quick getaway if one is needed'.

'Never switch on your interior car light as it presents an easy target for the man who wants to shoot you'.

'Never put the lights on when you go back home before you pull the curtains'.

'Ensure that your uniform is placed on the washing-line hidden inside other clothing'.

'Vary your route of travel.'

'Always keep a map of safe and unsafe places inside your head'.

For many men and women in uniform there were moments of violence and terror. Being blown up or shot at in an ambush. Spending weeks or months under medical supervision, trying to make a recovery. Losing a friend and colleague in that very incident where you survived. Suffering the anguish of knowing that another man took your place on a patrol - and was killed 'instead' of you. Experiencing the stressful impact of soldiering on the family circle - parents who experienced sleepless nights, a marriage damaged by the 'unsocial' part-time duty hours, children who had to 'keep up a front' about their security force father when at school or in their leisure hours with friends.

All these strains were intensified when a UDR/R Irish man or woman was living and working in a small, rural community where everyone could so easily find out each other's business.

It is striking and disturbing that numerous veterans still suffer what Sir Jeffrey Donaldson recently described in the House of Commons as a "culture of fear".

Even a shopping visit to Belfast city centre may become alarming if, seated in a coffee shop, you find yourself facing the all too familiar face of someone who was intimately connected, years before, to the killing of your colleague.

All well-meaning talk about reconciliation, with its injunctions that we should "move on", is irrelevant when you sit there, shaking with a panic attack and besieged by flashbacks.

Worse still, there have been incidents such as this where unsavoury or even threatening comments have been made.

Of course, this is not to deny that attempts have been made by some ex-combatants to reach out towards dialogue with former security force members, motivated by a profound sense of the nightmare we all lived through in those years of violence. And it is patently the case that lasting trauma is not the sole preserve of former soldiers, police or prison officers.

Having worked occasionally over the past two years with the organisation known as Decorum NI, I have become sensitised to the issues mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.

Decorum is a charity that seeks to offer help to all former security force members and their families who were deeply affected by their years of service during what the British Army refers to as Operation Banner, from 1969 to 2007.

It functions as a drop-in centre, offers friendship, provides useful information and various classes and therapies, and it possesses a small museum and archive. It is a body that looks to the future as well as dealing with the past.

I have undertaken oral history sessions and delivered creative writing classes there, and last year I produced a short play based on the experiences of an RUC man and his partner, which was performed at several community venues with the help of two young actors.

It is my belief - and the belief of those who run the Decorum project - that the voices of security force members and their families need to be heard, and that many of those voices deliver narratives that are truly compelling.

The project, which comes to fruition from March 20-24, involves the presentation of a one-man drama in four venues, and influenced in so many ways by the stories that I have heard.

It would be foolish of me to divulge the plot to a potential audience. However, the story begins when an older man tells us that he has just received a letter from someone who was close to the man responsible for the death of his son.

The letter contains an invitation to meet - and in the process of deciding what to do, our actor Brian Payne takes the audience on a journey through his character's past, a route marked by pain but also by love - and, remarkably, by humour.

The drama will be followed by discussion, including contributions from personnel at Decorum and from UDR veterans as well as members of the audience.

Hopefully this is in line with good practice in the arts in recent years, in which ownership of a story that deals with our conflict resides with those who watch it unfold on stage, as well as with the author, the actors and the text.

In recent years there has been a growing understanding of the importance of the arts in attending to all our painful and still undealt with legacies. Already, Kabosh theatre company have toured a play by Laurence McKeown, called Green And Blue, which tackles the impact of the Troubles on two policemen operating on either side of the border.

The current project, entitled Beneath The Harp And Crown, has been instigated and supported by the good relations unit of the Ards and North Down Borough Council. Good Relations officers work hard in all council areas to enable local stories to be voiced and then heard. Their work at the grassroots is vital.

My own interest in the role of narrative in addressing the past comes from work that I did in the 1980s, listening to Great War veterans and framing their accounts inside a book about local soldiers who served on the Western Front.

Old men told me that they still could hear the guns and suffered from nightmares.

I hope those old gentlemen gained some comfort in knowing that I was trying to make their story live on as a lesson for future generations and a living memorial to the dead.

As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has reminded us, to be forgotten is to die a second time.

Beneath The Harp And Crown, March 20, Royal British Legion, Comber, 7.30-9pm; Wednesday, March 21, Web Theatre, Newtownards, 7.30-9pm; Thursday, March 22, The Space, SERC, Bangor (students), 2-4pm, and public performance, 7.30-9pm, and Saturday, March 24, Village Hall, Ballywalter, 7.30-9pm. All events free. Discussion follows all performances.

Belfast Telegraph

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