(first published Mail on Sunday’s Night & Day Magazine January 8th 1995)
On the 30th August 1994, the IRA’s high command announced a “complete cessation of military operations”. The following December I received a phone call from the then deputy editor of the Mail on Sunday’s Night & Day magazine. The resulting conversation went something like this:
“Ken” he said. “You served in Northern Ireland, didn’t you?”
“Yes mate, I did.”
“Where were you based?” He asked.
“Well, we were stationed, as a battalion, in a place called Ballykinler, but we worked the border a month at a time in small village called Forkhill”.
“This Forkhill, did it have a pub?”
“Yes it did mate.”
“Did you ever go in there? Have a drink?”
“Ah, no mate. The only time we ever left the camp was to go out on patrol.”
“Oh right, well, what we’d like you to do, now that the ceasefire is on, is go back to this Forkhill, go into the pub one night, have a chat with a few of the locals, and tell them that you were once a Para there. Ask them what they think of the cease fire.”
“Tell them that I was a Para?”
“Yes, and that you patrolled there.”
“Are you fucking serious?”
“Of course I’m serious. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, no reason. Ok, I’ll do that. (Will I bollocks!) But I’ll need a car.”
“That’s no problem. What sort of car do you want?”
“An armored one would be nice!”
A Quiet Pint With The Locals
KEN LUKOWIAK first walked the troubled streets of Ulster as a raw recruit in 1980 when 20 fellow Paras were killed. Now peace has broken out and he’s a civvie. But he returned to Northern Ireland to fulfill a dream. A quiet pint with the locals.
Fourteen years had passed since I last looked down Forkhill’s rain-drenched main street. As I drove into the village, I passed a four-man patrol of Royal Marines. ‘That used to be me,’ I thought. And then, smiling broadly, I thought just how much I was going to enjoy it when they stopped me. And they surely would: a man in his thirties, alone in an unknown vehicle 50 metres from their base; absolutely bound to. So I had my story for them all worked out. When they asked me what I was doing in a County Armagh republican stronghold, just a mile or so from the Irish border, I would tell them I was a travelling Semtex salesman working for a Libyan-based company. Much to my disappointment, as I drove past them, the only acknowledgement I got was a friendly nod from the tail-end Charlie. ‘Wasn’t like that in my day,’ I said aloud. We would have had me straight out of the car and practically strip searched.
My first memories of Northern Ireland are all in black and white, because that’s how television was when the idea of ‘love thy neighbour’ vanished from the streets of Belfast. Monochrome marches and the white flare of petrol bombs. Dark grey armoured cars and grey-faced, white-throated priests. But I was only 10 or so then, and it mattered no more to me than, say, the civil war in Biafra did. Ten years later, in 1980, my memories turn instantly and vividly to colour. I was a raw young Para and I was bursting through the hurriedly opened metal door of an army base and taking up a fire position on a Forkhill street. ‘British pig’ was all the village could muster in the way of greetings. I had just finished six months’ basic training and been posted straight to Northern Ireland to join 2 Para, the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, who were 10 months into a 22-month tour of the province. As a Parachute battalion, 2 Para held a special place in the hearts and minds of the IRA planners. Eight years earlier, on January 30, 1972 – forever to be known as Bloody Sunday – 13 people had been shot dead by 1 Para on the streets of Londonderry. We were hated more than any other regiment. But we didn’t mind. In fact, we took it as a compliment that the IRA were so set on killing us. And kill us they did. By the time I arrived, 18 of my battalion had already been killed on the tour. Sixteen of us – and two Queen’s Own Highlanders — at Warren Point, our Bloody Monday. There were two bombs. The first, planted alongside the dual carriageway that runs between Newry and Warren Point, blew up a passing four-ton truck, killing six. The second, planted 100 meters away from the first, was detonated 30 minutes later. Militarily, its location was perfect, catching the unit that had come in response to the first bomb. It killed 12. Later that same day, a graffiti artist sprayed ‘IRA 16 Paras 0’ on a wall in Newry. They moved us off the streets of Newry shortly after. Two more of my battalion were killed when a night-time ambush went tragically wrong. For some reason, in the middle of the night, an officer and a young private left their positions without informing anyone and wandered to the rear of the ambush. On their return, their gun-carrying silhouettes were spotted by a corporal, who very professionally reversed the ambush and then gave the order to open fire.
Forkhill always seemed to be a nothing kind of a place to us. What with the locals’ hostility and our having to carry guns and all, we may have been biased but we were glad we hadn’t been born there. One pub, two shops, an infant school and 300 or so people who passed us like we weren’t there. Oh, and it rained a lot. The only contact we had with the populace was when we stopped them for a session of ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Out of the car. Please’. When I revisited the village, I parked on a side street near the army base, and tried to conjure up some happy memory of the place: something that would make me smile and say, ‘Those were the days.’ But none came. Just memories of the total boredom of the place. Back in basic training, they may have made it sound all bullets and bombs, but the day-in day-out reality was the same streets, the same fields, the same cold, the same rain. The papers used words like ‘cowardly’ and ‘incompetent’ to describe the IRA. We couldn’t afford such illusions. By the early Eighties, the IRA knew everything there was to know about the construction, planting and detonation of bombs. And, after more than 10 years of watching, they also knew everything about us. So we tried to keep our timings and our actions as varied as possible; tried not to cross a hedge at the same point twice, or stop for a fag break where others had stopped. But Forkhill was a small place with only so many routes around and through it. And we knew it. So we touched nothing. And we opened nothing. But still we got killed. A private from D Company was blown up in a barn, and a sergeant from B Company was killed by a bomb on the outskirts of the village. That brought the total lost on the tour to 20. Two years later, we fought two battles in the Falklands and lost only – although that can never be the right word – 18 men.
In Forkhill we lived in a heavily fortified base slap in the middle of the main street. We only ever left it to go on patrol. Time was divided into a nine-day rota: three days patrolling the village in four-man ‘bricks’, three days’ camp guard and three days in ‘the field’ on border patrol. It was the hardest l’ve ever worked. Not only because of the hours, but also because of the conditions. Seven or eight of us, with full equipment and weapons, would have to sleep in a room that would have been crowded for two. And all night, other soldiers would troop in and out of the room, on their way to or from a patrol. It was a joy to be out on border patrol: at least you could find a nice dark forestry block and get a good night’s sleep. We ticked off the days like men in prison. The only good thing about Forkhill was that you spent nothing. Food and accommodation were free, and we received an allowance known as ‘NI pay’, so when we went on leave we were rich. Yet, after two weeks ‘on the pop’ in England, most of us would return broke. But then, as we’d tell each other, ‘Who wants to die with money in the bank?