Posted on Aug 14, 2019
Today, August 14th, marks the 50th anniversary of Operation Banner, when the British military were initially deployed, at the request of the unionist government of Northern Ireland, in response to the August 1969 riots in the province.
Operation Banner was to subsequently involve the British Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, MI5, and the British Special Branch.
The locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), many of whom were volunteer soldiers living and working in the communities they served to protect, both Catholic and protestant, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were also on the front line, and all took horrendous casualties.
1,441 serving British military personnel died during Operation Banner, countless others were physically and mentally scarred.
In total, some 3,600 were to die, many of them Irish Catholics murdered by the Republicans themselves, during "The Troubles" until a peace deal, known as "The Good Friday Agreement" was brokered in the late 1990s.
Most recently, the politically motivated persecution of veterans of the conflict has attracted much media attention, and public sympathy, bit little or no response beyond vague mutterings from the UK government.
However, Boris Johnson, Britain's new Prime Minister, has thrown up a ray of light for the veterans.
His appointment of Ben Wallace, Member of Parliament for Wyre & Preston North and a former Scots Guards officer, who has himself served in Northern Ireland, as Defence Secretary will be seen as most encouraging.
Wallace is on record as having stated that "ex-soldiers in their 70s and 80s should be enjoying their retirement – not suffering the 'trauma' of investigators knocking on the door".
My earliest memory of deploying to Northern Ireland was landing on a wet and dark night at RAF Aldergrove some 27 years ago. The Regiment had flown in from Germany and were due to start a 6 month tour as the Belfast Roulement Battalion... I was a 21-year-old platoon commander with the Scots Guards. It was my first operational tour and a million miles away from the comforts of the base in Germany... As we waited for our kit to come off the plane, we were each approached by a little old lady who gave us a pencil and said 'God bless you.' To this day I do not know who she was, but her determination to welcome us, late at night in a cold and damp warehouse, represented the inherent goodness of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland. She was there every time I returned and many veterans will remember her... Walking streets that look and feel like home while facing a deadly threat is a unique experience. From my base at the top of the Turf Lodge in West Belfast we would patrol day and night in support of the police. Sometimes there would be attacks, sometimes there would be riots but most of the time the terrorists hid amongst the community... So was it all worth it? Was Op Banner a success? The answer I can say is yes. Not just because Northern Ireland is hardly recognisable now and not just because a whole generation of people have grown up with peace but because the Armed Forces and the Police Service systematically defeated some of the most potent terrorist groups in the world. This provided the space for a political process to grow up that eventually led to the Belfast Agreement of 1998... In the nearly 38 years of Operation Banner, 1,441 members of the Armed Forces gave their lives as well as over 300 RUC police officers. They died trying to defend the democratic values and freedoms all people have a right to... There is a concern by many who were in Op Banner that history is being rewritten for expediency and the effort by the thousands of veterans who delivered a successful operation forgotten... Northern Ireland veterans in their 70s and 80s should now be enjoying their retirement – not dealing with the trauma of waiting for a knock on the door when there is no new evidence that an offence has been committed... As Defence Secretary I won't let the history books be rewritten. We veterans know. There are too many of us to forget and we owe it to those decent people of Northern Ireland, who despite different views, never supported violence as the answer... Veterans of Op Banner should be incredibly proud that militarily and politically they defeated the terrorists and the operation was successful and we should be celebrating it... The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was a great achievement for all involved, and I want to see all communities continue to move forward in the spirit of peace...
Today Northern Ireland exists in relative peace and prosperity and the political parties, both the Irish Republicans and Ulster Unionists, have renounced violence and are now integrated into the political process at both national and European level. However, this is a fragile peace.
The paramilitary groups on both sides of the divide continue to exist, albeit that they are mainly operating in the area of organised crime - drugs, prostitution, protection, etc - but there has been a resurgence of politically motivated violence in the last year or so. This is largely attributed to the appearance on the political agenda of the European Council and Commission of the so-called "Irish Backstop", something that soldiers would cynically refer to as a "buggeration factor" in the Brexit negotiations.
The threat of a "hard border", invented as a negotiating tool by the EU, is totally unacceptable to both parties in the Irish debate. But conflict, as Marx wrote, is "the catalyst that drives all protest".
The Eurocrats should bear in mind Galatians 6:7 "for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap".
The author of this article is a veteran of Operation Banner.
Follow EU Today on Social media: