Belfast Telegraph

Alan Simpson: Working with squaddies every day, I realised Paras were different breed ... they were filled with aggression and over-confidence

Flags backing Soldier F are not welcome on the Shankill Road because paratroopers shot dead two innocent Protestants there. Alan Simpson, who was based at Tennent Street RUC station, remembers a regiment more suited to the battlefield than supporting the police

Flags flying in support of Soldier F in Portadown
Flags flying in support of Soldier F in Portadown
Robert Johnston was an innocent man shot dead by the Paras
UVF murderer Brian Robinson was killed by an undercover Army unit

It is something of an understatement to say that the Parachute Regiment has continued to be controversial in recent months due to the decision to charge Soldier F with two murders relating to Bloody Sunday and the ongoing inquest into the Ballymurphy massacre in 1971.

In some loyalist areas of the province the flag of the Parachute Regiment is being flown, ostensibly in support of Soldier F, but there is undoubtedly an element of provocation there too.

And recently we learnt that it's not to be flown in the Shankill, due to the shooting dead of four loyalists in that area by the Army during the Troubles.

I had a unique insight into most regiments of the Army as I arrived in Tennent Street RUC station in May 1970 as a raw probationer constable fresh from initial training.

The station was responsible for policing republican Ardoyne and the loyalist Shankill. The Troubles were moving from simmering to boiling-point and policing was impossible without the support of the Army.

Regiments came and went on four-month tours and their HQ and ops room were inside the station, while the main body of troops was billeted in the old linen mill in Flax Street.

Working with soldiers every day, I soon realised that the Paras were of a different breed to the normal infantryman, as they were filled with aggression and over-confidence.

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It soon became apparent that's how they were trained and, in effect, they were shock troops more suited to the battlefield than assisting a civilian power in a policing situation.

Their true role was exemplified during the Falklands War in 1982 when Colonel H Jones, OC of Second Battalion the Parachute Regiment, was killed in action as he led his men against enemy machine-gun posts.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour.

Despite their aggression we, as police officers, greatly appreciated their support on many occasions. During their tours of duty in north Belfast they went on patrol, taking with them police radios.

They listened in to us taking calls, for example, to a pub brawl. They were always hot on our heels to such incidents, seeking some action.

Often we faced great hostility when responding to these, but the appearance of the men in red berets behind us had a distinctly calming effect on the troublemakers, even through a haze of alcohol.

On the evening of September 7, 1972 - the date on which two innocent men, Richie McKinney and Robert Johnston, were shot dead by the Paras - the UDA, in paramilitary garb, had started a riot outside Tennent Street police station.

I witnessed the beginning of it and the soldiers charging out through the front gates to deal with it. Over the following hour or so they captured a total of 27 suspected rioters.

This incident is firmly imprinted in my head as Sergeant Dan O'Connor and I had the task of charging them all and placing their cases before Belfast Magistrates Court. This resulted in a mountain of paperwork and regular appearances at court.

Twenty-six of them were convicted of riotous behaviour and sentenced to the mandatory term of six months' imprisonment.

During that same era I experienced another traumatic incident involving the Paras. There had been a sectarian disturbance opposite Unity Flats and a colleague and I, together with two Paras, were detailed to stay behind to give early warning of further trouble.

We concealed ourselves in separate shop doorways and, as two men walked past us, coming from the direction of the Shankill Road, they spotted me and called me a "black b******".

They were unaware of the two soldiers in the next doorway, one of whom stepped out to confront them.

I could hear what I thought was the sound of a rifle butt connecting with teeth, followed by a lot of yelping.

The last I saw of the two offenders was of them fleeing at great speed down North Street.

It was a good lesson in that one should always be respectful to police officers.

In December 1972 I was accepted into the CID and sent to west Belfast as a trainee detective.

A year later Alexander Howell was shot dead on the Shankill Road, on that occasion by a member of a Scottish regiment.

There had been some sort of brawl outside The Bayardo bar - a notorious UVF haunt - and the soldier who fired the fatal shot was charged with manslaughter, but was eventually acquitted.

The loyalist terrorists settled on carrying out a reprisal and, on the day that Howell was killed, they lured a police response unit from Tennent Street to a bogus robbery at Forthriver Road.

They had an ambush set in place and a good friend of mine, Constable Michael Logue, was shot dead.

More tragedy was to follow when, six months later, Sergeant O'Connor was killed by the IRA while on foot patrol on the Crumlin Road. I was greatly disturbed by his murder, as we had been through so many incidents together that we had developed a firm bond of friendship.

As the years moved on I made my way up through the ranks of the CID and, in 1989, I was appointed as the detective superintendent in charge of crime investigation in north Belfast.

At that stage in my career I had attended close to 100 murder scenes, so, on a Saturday morning in September, 1989, I took it in my stride when I received a call that an undercover Army unit had shot dead Brian Robinson, a member of the UVF. The military unit had just witnessed him shoot dead Catholic Patrick McKenna at the Ardoyne shops and had pursued him as he and another man escaped on a motorcycle.

As they attempted to turn into Cambrai Street both fell off the motorcycle and a female undercover soldier fired several shots into Robinson. When I arrived at the scene his body lay crumpled up against the wall of an old linen mill on the Crumlin Road.

There was an added tragic side to this incident as, when Robinson's mother received news of his death, she immediately took ill and died a short time later. They had joint funerals to Roselawn.

Robinson's OC was Trevor King, a high-ranking member of the UVF, and there is great suspicion as to how the Army learned of the murderous operation involving Robinson.

King's days too were numbered when, on June 16, 1994, he, Colin Craig and David Hamilton were shot by a member of the INLA on the Shankill Road. Craig died at the scene, Hamilton died the following day and King passed away three weeks later.

A few days later the UVF got their revenge when they entered The Heights bar in Loughinisland and murdered six of the patrons.

The INLA man who undoubtedly killed Craig, Hamilton and King was Gino Gallagher, a prominent member of that organisation. The INLA was renowned for internal feuding and Gallagher too met his demise at the end of a gun fired by one of his erstwhile friends.

I realise that, thankfully, there is a whole generation of young people who have been born since the Troubles ended. I dread the thought that, due to the political impasse at Stormont and other factors, we may unconsciously drift back to another era of conflict.

The above should give a good indication of the horror that lies ahead should we ever go down that road again.

Retired RUC Detective Superintendent Alan Simpson is the author of Duplicity And Deception (Dingle: Brandon Books, 2010)

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