Ten years ago, on August 14th, 1996, British troops stationed in Northern Ireland were called out for the first time to help the police put down disorder.
Ten years ago, on August 14th, 1996, British troops stationed in Northern Ireland were called out for the first time to help the police put down disorder. Since then, their role in the province has grown, until duty in Northern Ireland has become a regular part of the life of British army units; and 301 officers and men have lost their lives there.
SYNOPSIS: The Northern Ireland government asked for help after two days of serious rioting between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Londonderry and Belfast. Previously, only a few hundred British soldiers had been stationed in the province on garrison duty. They were hurriedly reinforced, until by the end of August, the number had risen to over 6,000. Today, it is about 13,000.
The decision to use British troops on the streets was popular with many Northern Irish people. protestants welcomed the demonstration of unity with Britain; catholics trusted them to be more impartial than the Special Constabulary, who had a reputation for Protestant bias.
After nearly three years, little progress had been made towards a political solution of Northern Ireland's problems. The Roman Catholic Community was now seeing the British Army as allies of the Protestant establishment, which it regarded as oppressors. What began as a demonstration against internment of suspects without trial developed into one of the most serious clashes of the decade: "Bloody sunday" in Londonderry. Accounts of what happened differed sharply. Stones and bottles were followed by gas canisters and rubber bullets. Shots were fired. The Army said its men were fired on first; the demonstrators denied this. The outcome was: 13 civilians killed and 16 wounded.
A British judicial enquiry found that some soldiers had carried out their orders responsibly, but the conduct of others had "bordered on the reckless".
The British Army is engaged in a struggle with the Irish Republican Army -- the militant movement devoted to driving the British out of Ireland altogether. The troops have been accused of brutality in their methods, and a partially successful case was brought against Britain by the Republic of Ireland in the European Court of Human Rights. In response, the Army can point to success in unearthing stocks of hidden arms, including sophisticated American-made weapons.
This train, halted just after it had crossed the border on its way to Belfast from the south, was treated as thought it contained planted bombs. The British army has learnt the hard way in its dealings with the I.R.A. to be wary of booby traps. Many of its casualties have occurred in situations like that.
Patrolling the border is one of the main functions of the British forces in Northern Ireland. Officially they have the full co-operation of the army and police of the Republic of Ireland in the South, where the I.R.A. is an illegal organisation.
Nevertheless, their cause has many sympathizers in the south, and it is known that I.R.A. men from the north often find refuge there.