Monday, 7 January 2013

Northern Ireland: Worrying Developments.

My first arrival in Northern Ireland, in November 1979, was subject to a few days delay because of an appointment with a magistrate - I was not always the best behaved of teenagers - but it was the beginning of a series of events and incidents that were to help shape and define the person I am today.

I also met some fantastic people. I not only worked with a great team, but I have to say that off-camp not one person, even in nationalist areas, was anything other than polite to me personally.
Rember, Irish Republicans were as much a bane to ordinary catholics as they were to us. Sinn Fein/IRA, INLA, and the rest killed more catholics than the security forces and the loyalists put together.

DH Beaver in Army Air Corps livery.
The Reconnaissance & Intelligence Centre (RICNI) at RAF Aldergrove was one of the highlights of my service. It was the base for a mixture of Army Air Corps Beavers and assorted Army and RAF helicopters - Wessex, Puma, Lynx, and my own favourite, the Gazelle, which always felt a bit like being on a fairground ride to me. Our 'crewroom' was also a stopping off point for those who were best kept away from public gaze, and we met some interesting people there. We also had our own bar, and Friday evening darts matches against  the RUC were always something to look forward to.

The Army Air Corps Beavers were the best, as they could carry a particular type of camera that required some attention in the air, which meant that as one of 4 airmen working in the camera bay I got quite a lot of flying time. I found the Army aircrews less stuffy and formal than our own 'Rodneys', and liked working with them. Flying under power cables in a Gazelle, filming culverts under roads and dodging traffic was just great. We had a camera we nicknamed 'Super Snoopy', which was actually a converted F96 high-level recce camera that was mostly used in Canberras, fitted with a 48 inch lens and with a home made sight welded on the end. We used this big beast to photograph large crowds at demonstrations and funerals. It was mounted in the doorway of a Puma, and from a safe height we could photograph all the faces we wanted in very high definition. To be honest, it was excitement of the type that I really could do without now, but at the time I loved every moment of it.

F96 with 48" lens.
I suppose I did come out of the forces quite politicised, and it was the NI experience that did that to me.

To me, and others like me, the Good Friday Agreement was like a kick in the teeth. My feelings about the PIRA and others of their ilk will never diminish, although I have promised myself that I will not pass this hatred onto my children. But on a recent trip to Ulster and Eire I came to realise that anything that stopped what was going on had to be for the best in the end. To sit in Starbucks in Arthur Square - which was always a flashpoint - with colleagues on a nice warm afternoon made me realise that nobody should have to bring up their children in the atmosphere that we experienced there in the late 70s and early 80s.At times though I wondered if it had all simply been forgotten, what we did. But I tell myself that the peace and prosperity the province enjoys today could not have happened without us, and in any case why should today's children have to confront the hatred and prejudices of past generations?

The drive south was interesting for me. To see the names of towns and villages that in my mind were only associated with death and carnage was an experience. What we called 'Bandit Country' was best experienced in a very fast helicopter. I never realised how pretty it is.

But I find recent events in East Belfast very disturbing.

Deja vu........
Ulster was always a maelstrom of unfathomable dynamics. If I were to put myself in the place of Protestant community now, I would be both offended and worried about the decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag above government buildings. I think this is a foolish decision indeed. And of course, as well as 'soft' unionists, there is still the 'hard' loyalist community. Add to the equation opportunist politicians and street thugs with their own criminal agendas, and don't be surprised if the petrol bombs start flying.

The most significant factor here is that the unionist/loyalist community is turning against the security forces - the UVF in perticular has been named as being behind a lot of the trouble, although reading between the lines I suspect it is individuals rather the organisation itself. This is highly regretable, and Sinn Fein/IRA will be rubbing their hands with glee.

The relationship between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries has come under the spotight recently. I fear that we may in the near future see ex-Army intelligence personnel facing charges for simply doing the job they were sent out to do. David Cameron's recent comments following the Finucane review have not helped either. Is he stupid, poorly briefed, or is he just happy to throw good people to the wolves in the name of political expediency?

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