Belfast Telegraph

Ivan Little: Day to honour sacrifice, not to talk about controversy

An Operation Banner veteran salutes at Saturday’s commemoration in Lisburn
An Operation Banner veteran salutes at Saturday’s commemoration in Lisburn
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It wasn't so much the war that leaders of Army veterans didn't want anyone to mention in Lisburn at the weekend, but rather the F-word.

After the previous weekend's furore in Londonderry over support for Soldier F, who is facing Bloody Sunday murder charges, the organisers of a service and parade to mark the 50th anniversary of troops being deployed here were determined that the commemoration would be a protest-free, controversy-free zone.

The Northern Ireland Veterans Association (NIVA) had urged the several thousand ex-servicemen attending the event in Wallace Park not to bring any Soldier F or Parachute Regiment banners or emblems.

Spokesman Ian Simpson, an ex-prison officer, said Saturday was an occasion for a remembrance of Operation Banner, not protests about investigations into historical Army killings. He added that organisers didn't want anything to distract from the main message going out from the commemoration. "There will be other days for protests," he said.

On social media, however, some veterans said they would be boycotting the event because of what they called the NIVA ban, though Mr Simpson said he didn't believe many people had stayed away.

However, some of the ex-soldiers and VIPs who were in Lisburn didn't shy away from talking about the legacy controversy. Even the main speaker, Sir Robert Pascoe, the former GOC who led Operation Banner in the 1980s, had his say, describing the investigations as unfair but adding that claims about police bias against former soldiers had been "exaggerated".

From early morning veterans in regimental blazers descended on Wallace Park with their families.

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Some of them came on crutches, mobility scooters and in wheelchairs to remember their 722 fallen military comrades.

Twenty of them came on motorbikes. The leather-clad ex-servicemen who call themselves the Legion Riders travel all over the UK and the Republic to attend remembrance services.

The Lisburn commemoration began with a drumhead service, a solemn and sombre reflection on the sacrifices of not only soldiers but also police and prison officers who died in the Troubles.

Members of the Garda, the Prison Service and former soldiers from the Republic were at the ceremony for Operation Banner, the longest continuous operation in the history of the Army and which didn't end until 2007.

For some English ex-soldiers it was their first time back in Northern Ireland since they served here.

Former Royal Mechanical Engineer Christopher Perkin said he was still scarred on his first return in 30 years, adding: "Two of my mates, Stephen Cummins and Miles Amos, were blown up and killed and we had 18 injured - but we had good times too."

He said it was wrong for the authorities to "dig up the past" by questioning or charging ex-soldiers, but added: "I don't think we've seen the end of it, there's probably a lot more to come yet, but it has to work both ways."

Some relatives of people killed in the Troubles said they found the Lisburn service difficult. Others said it was uplifting.

Ruth Forrest was there to commemorate three members of her family. They were her RUC sister Doreen Harkness, who died after being struck by a vehicle at a checkpoint in 1981; her brother David, who was a victim of the Provos' Teebane bombing in 1992, and her UDR soldier father Cyril, who was seriously injured in an IRA blast in 1978.

Mrs Forrest, who lost her own home in an IRA bomb attack in a Cookstown housing estate in 1991, was wearing medals that had been awarded to her sister and to her father.

She said: "My sister never got the opportunity to wear her medal. I am so proud to wear my family's medals to remember all the people who died."

Her sentiments were echoed by Yvonne Black, the widow of prison officer David Black, shot dead on his way to work at Maghaberry by dissidents in 2012 on the M1 motorway.

"Today has been even more emotional than I thought it would be, arriving here to see all the uniforms again, but there's a real pride inside," she said.

It is understood that the Veterans Association hadn't initially planned to invite politicians to the Lisburn event, but the leaders of the DUP and the UUP, Arlene Foster and Robin Swann, were in the platform party.

Mrs Foster said she was thinking about her late father John Kelly, an RUC man who was shot and wounded in 1979. She added: "Those people who are here today stood between us and anarchy actually, and therefore we are very grateful."

Her party colleague Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, who served in the Ulster Defence Regiment, said it was a poignant day for him and his colleagues as they honoured "the sacrifice of security forces personnel who stood in the front line and who helped create the space in which people could enjoy a relative degree of peace".

He wouldn't be drawn on the Soldier F issue, however, saying: "It's not a day for politics. It's a day to remember."

Victims campaigner Ken Funston, whose brother Ronnie, a former UDR soldier, was shot dead by the IRA in 1984, didn't hold back. He said: "Unfortunately today in Northern Ireland we are in a period of flux where the people who did the right things seem to be almost cast as the bad guys and we have got to bring that back into reality."

Coronation Street actor Charlie Lawson, an ambassador for the Veterans Association, described the Troubles as a horrible, gruesome and traumatic period when people in uniforms here were put in intolerable positions "yet over in England they tend to want to forget us". Asked what he would say to victims of State violence and Army shootings on Bloody Sunday, he replied: "Terrible things were done by everybody to everybody. I'm not here to talk about Bloody Sunday. It's not about that today."

He also declined to discuss the investigations into historical killings and Soldier F.

Newly appointed Defence Procurement Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan didn't speak to the media but in a tweet she said she was honoured to represent the Government at the commemoration.

She said 300,000 men and women had been deployed during Operation Banner and she thanked those who "had restored peace in Northern Ireland".

After the service in Wallace Park the veterans paraded through Lisburn. The organisers had hoped that military bands would lead the servicemen and women but the Ministry of Defence refused permission.

The local bands who took part were all issued with a code of conduct which including a directive, Ian Simpson said, not to have flags or colour parties and to play tunes that "were acceptable for what today is about".

Three wreaths were laid along the way - at the city's war memorial, at a statue honouring the UDR and the third close to where six soldiers were killed in an IRA bomb attack as they returned from a charity fun run in 1988.

A museum was set up in a marquee in the centre of Lisburn and old military vehicles and a helicopter were on display, alongside the names of 2,400 security force members and prison officers who the NIVA said had died by suicide, or stress-related illnesses or in road accidents as well as in terrorist attacks.

Some nationalists took to social media to complain about the commemoration. One described it as a "hatefest" and asked how shopkeepers in Lisburn were supposed to attract business "with this celebration of sectarianism".

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