Belfast Telegraph

Ken Wharton: Former soldier determined to challenge republican revisionist narrative of Troubles

'An old lady, clad in a black coat and quite resembling my grandmother, smiled and said, 'How are ye, wee man?' I opened my mouth to speak ... and she spat straight in my face'

Soldiers patrol rubble-strewn Dawson Street off the Antrim Road in 1970
Soldiers patrol rubble-strewn Dawson Street off the Antrim Road in 1970

By Ken Wharton

In the wake of the intended prosecution of a former paratrooper - "Soldier F" - I thought it an opportune moment to refresh the reader's memory of what life was like on the streets of Northern Ireland during the bloody course of that euphemistically named period known as the Troubles.

Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, La Mon, Claudy, Enniskillen and Teebane all blur into one, seemingly endless, memory, as the British newspaper reader (or their TV news counterpart) became distracted and then finally bored by the whole affair; a new generation of Labour Party supporters, to whom Northern Ireland and the accompanying violence is as distant a memory as to be almost ancient history.

To twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, the Troubles are not even a long-ago memory; to them, the radical teachings of the Labour messiah, Jeremy Corbyn, and the Irish republican narrative of successfully rewriting history are all that matters: let's move forward is the cry, forget the past; forget the past, apart that is, from the British soldiers who, in the course of their duty, killed Northern Irish paramilitaries and civilians, intentionally or otherwise.

The smooth, plausible and very articulate tones of former Provisional IRA commander (allegedly) and later Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams weave a plausible and almost believable narrative, which once only he believed, but now, it seems, everybody believes.

Adams is a most skilful orator, taking the plaudits of a generation who either don't know, or more likely don't care, about his past.

Indeed, a young relative of mine informed me that Adams was "a great man" and - even more astonishingly - "a man of peace".

In an earlier book of mine, I wrote of a former soldier - he had served several tours of Northern Ireland with the Royal Green Jackets - who wrote of his dismay and bitterness at the attitude of his civvy friends when he met up with them on leave.

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They told him that the topic of Northern Ireland was "boring" and that they were fed up hearing about his time there.

Indeed, several years ago, an old friend of mine announced that his cousin was "over there", but that there was no mention of shootings, or bombings.

One remembers, in the early days of the Troubles, the solemn tones of the revered ITV presenter Sir Trevor McDonald as he announced, between the chimes of Big Ben: "In Northern Ireland tonight, another British soldier has been killed."

It was always on the front page of the dailies and first item on News at Ten.

But, very soon, such solemn news became the second, then the third and sometimes fourth incident which Sir Trevor introduced. Very soon, it was relegated to part two, following the advertisements.

Newspapers followed suit and the death of a British soldier at the hands of an IRA sniper, or bomber, was hidden away on some inner page, often consigned to a small paragraph.

But what was it like in this land where a serving soldier could be shot dead walking through a council estate, or where an off-duty soldier, or police officer, could be gunned down as he watched TV with his children?

What was it really like in this country where there weren't any bullets, or bombs, and where, as Sinn Fein would have us believe, the IRA were just protecting their areas against the bloodthirsty "occupiers" of their country.

Soldiers were in Ulster, initially, as an aid to the civil powers, but soon enough as a front line force against masked terrorists, who saw bombing a pub, or a cafe, as a legitimate method of reuniting the island of Ireland.

The troops were also there to stop loyalist paramilitaries from the indiscriminate slaughter of Catholics, or anyone they considered "might" be a supporter of the IRA.

A foot patrol might, typically, involve separate groups of four soldiers at a time, dashing quickly onto the streets around their base before settling into a pre-ordained routine of three men facing forward and one man walking backwards to prevent a sneak attack by a gunman from behind.

These men, wearing ineffective body armour, clad in berets, clutching their reliable SLR 7.62mm weapons, knew that a booby-trapped derelict building - and, God knows, there were plenty of them - might lie ahead; that even as they approached a street, an IRA crew in a stolen car, a deadly American-made Armalite in the boot, could be lurking around the corner.

There was also the ever-present threat of a brick, or piece of glass, being hurled in their direction, or worse, a petrol bomb arcing silently towards them, then the shock of the blast as fire erupted around them.

A favourite tactic of the rioters was to insert sugar into the petrol-filled bottles, which, on explosion, would splash a napalm-like liquid, which would burn through the soldiers' uniforms before burning into them as it inextinguishably corroded skin and muscle.

If the patrol members were lucky, they would simply be spat at, shunned, or verbally abused. I remember one particular day when an old lady, clad in a black coat, her rollered-hair masked by a green headscarf and quite resembling my grandmother, smiled at me and said, "How are ye, wee man?" I opened my mouth to reply when she spat straight in my face.

Upon the conclusion of the patrol, it would be back to base, make your weapons safe before cleaning, grab an egg sandwich and a mug of tea and prepare for the next foray onto the streets of Belfast, Londonderry, Strabane, Coleraine, Newry, or any one of the dangerous areas of Northern Ireland.

It is true to say that there was not a shooting, or an explosion, every day, or even a daily riot. But to the ordinary soldiers from Leeds, London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester, or any one of a myriad number of towns in the UK, there was always the threat that there would be.

Even when we went home on leave to our families, loved ones would be unaware of the dangers which faced us almost daily, because they were starved of information by the British media.

One RUC officer, whom I befriended, once said to me: "It is okay for you lads; after four months, you're away home. But we live here 24 hours-a-day, 365 days of the year and these b******s know where we live. We're never safe."

It was safe, however, to assume that their families were more aware than ours on the mainland, as the families of the RUC and UDR shared the dangers, too.

  • Ken Wharton served with the Army in Northern Ireland in the early-1970s. He is the author of Torn Apart: Fifty Years of the Troubles, 1969-2019, published by The History Press, priced £25

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