I never thought I’d see Forkhill again. Mainly because, as an ex-Para, I always felt it would have been too dangerous. But the ceasefire seemed to be holding. So I talked myself into it. Whatever other momentous changes might be taking place in the province, Forkhill didn’t seem to have changed at all. There were a couple of new bungalows on the outskirts and the old wooden community hall had been replaced by a brick one, but basically it was the same place it had been 14 years ago. Even the tatty old Irish flag that used to hang from a telegraph pole was still up there.
Looking at the Army camp that used to contain me, I began to wonder what I had truly felt back then — about Ireland, the Troubles, the IRA. I know I fitted neither of the two clichéd descriptions of soldiers serving in Northern Ireland. I never once felt I was an upstanding young man proudly serving Queen and country, but I also knew I was never just a thick-brained Para desperate to inflict injury on any Paddy who got in my way. There were soldiers who were like that – in all regiments – but they were a small minority. It was simply a job and I got on with it as best I could. I feel now that I should have thought more about it. But, like the Royal Marines I passed in my car, I was so very young – even though at 20 I felt ever so grown up, such a man, carrying my gun. Truth was, most of us just wanted to get home in one piece, and they could make Northern Ireland a dependency of Botswana for all we cared. But I didn’t hate the locals. On the Wiltshire council estate of my childhood, it didn’t matter where you went to church. So, even as a soldier, I had no real understanding of the hatred in Northern Ireland. In fact, I don’t think any of us did, except for the one or two who came from Glasgow. Some soldiers did turn to hating while they were there – say, if a close mate got killed, or if they lost a limb in a bomb. But, even then, we were soldiers: we expected our enemies to try to kill us. That was the deal.
One thing l was determined to do on my return was have a drink in the local pub, the Slieve Gullion Arms. On patrol I walked past the place in pouring rain more times than I could count, looking through its windows and wishing I could be in the warm and dry of a pub with nothing else to do but drink beer and talk to girls. It was lunchtime when I entered the bar and I struck up a conversation with a couple of old boys sipping Guinness. I wasn’t crazy enough to say ‘Hello, I used to be a Para here’, but I was obviously English and, though they were polite, I could see they were suspicious. It was just like old times, trying to get information out of the consistently uncooperative. They may have been in their seventies and had lived in Forkhill all their lives, but they still claimed not to know the name of the street that runs behind the back of the school. When I was on patrol there, we’d stop in the pub car park and radio in the number plates of the cars. Sometimes it would come back that a vehicle belonged to a known IRA man. So, we’d pull him as he left the pub. It was beyond us why, if he was known to be an IRA man, we couldn’t just arrest him and lock him away. But ours was not to question why, so we’d hold him up for an hour or so with queries about his movements and a very long search of him and his car. The surprising thing was just how polite everything was. He would open his car boot as if there was nothing more in the world he wanted than to be searched by us. Though we also did our bit to help the pleasantries along. Some of the IRA men were so drunk they could hardly stand. But we weren’t police, we were soldiers. They could drive on heroin for all we cared.
After a very pointless hour in the rain, they would say things like: ‘I hope you boys enjoy the rest of your stay in Ireland and that you don’t get your legs blown off before you go home.’ And we would reply with a sincere thank you for their kind thought, and the hope that the next time they were in Belfast they didn’t take a wrong turning and accidentally drive into an Orangemen’s parade and end up getting their knee-caps drilled. Then a hundred yards down the road, they would get stopped again by a patrol we’d radioed to get into place while we were holding them. At least another half-hour in the rain for them, I’m afraid to say. A bit cruel, I know, but then again we never once bundled them out of their cars and into a black cab and drove them to a side street and stripped and murdered them in front of a cheering crowd.
Midway through my tour, I was volunteered to become part of the battalion’s specialist observation company. The good news was that it was no more Forkhill for me. The bad news was that work now consisted of sitting in a hedge for three to six days, come rain or shine – and it was normally rain – watching a house or a road junction or a bridge. Sometimes, the houses we watched belonged to ‘baddies’, but mostly they were the houses of part-time RUC men or Ulster Defence Regiment men that intelligence had said the IRA were going to hit. We always went into position at night, dropped off from an unmarked civilian van a mile or so from our destination – which could be anywhere in Northern Ireland. Often we’d be wearing the berets of the regiment whose area we were in, so that if it did ‘come on top’, no one would be any the wiser that the ‘evil Paras’ had been around. A lot of the time we weren’t able to erect any overhead cover, so if it rained and blew a gale we just had to sit in it. And when we’d finished our stint we had to take out with us everything that we had taken in – including the sealed freezer bags we’d used as toilets. It was the most boring job I’ve ever had. The IRA, of course, never turned up. Not even when we tried a ‘come-on’ – setting up a first observation post that couldn’t have been more obvious had a nightly disco been held in it and then putting in a second team to watch the first, in the hope that the IRA would ‘come on’. Maybe this tactic had worked once, but not in my day it didn’t.
This time round, I’d liked to have found one of those hedges in which I spent so many cold, miserable hours and given myself another opportunity to say, ‘Those weren’t the days.’ But in truth I didn’t have a clue where those hedges were. To this day I can still describe in great detail the houses that I watched for hours on end, and the people and the pets that lived in them – but I couldn’t tell you where they were. I served a year there, finally leaving in March 1981. Three years later, I left the army and today there is peace in Northern Ireland. There might still be soldiers patrolling the streets, but they’re no longer stopping drunken IRA men in the rain outside the Slieve Gullion Arms. That this can last may just be wishful thinking, I’m not sure. I guess the key words there now are forgive and forget. But as someone who once carried a gun in Northern Ireland, how far would I go to forgive and forget? If I met Gerry Adams, for instance, would I shake his hand? Would I hell. I lost four friends at Goose Green in the Falklands and yet 12 years on I would have no trouble sitting down and having a drink with any of the Argentinian soldiers who faced us that day. But even though no close friends of mine were killed on my tour in Northern Ireland, I would never sit down for a drink with an ex-IRA man. I would feel I was betraying all the blokes who were just like me, but who lost their lives. Yet I can say this: if you put Gerry Adams in front of me, I would not spit in his face. That might not sound like much – but if you put General Galtieri in front of me, I’d like to do a lot more than spit in his face. And times do change. So who knows, maybe, one day I will go back to Forkhill again and sit in the pub and say, ‘Hello, I used to be a Para here.’ Though, in honesty, I can’t see it.