When the Paras first went into Northern Ireland, they quickly earned a reputation for toughness, not to say brutality. Now, many of the men they helped put behind bars are being released and the soldiers are left wondering what was the point of it all. Night & Day sent ex-Para KEN LUKOWIAK to talk to them about the peace process – and the 52 comrades they lost in the Troubles. Their views are not for the faint-hearted.
(first published Mail on Sunday’s Night & Day Magazine August 1997)
In June 1997, past and present members of the Parachute Regiment gathered in the British Army’s home town of Aldershot. For many of us, it was the first opportunity to catch up with old comrades with whom we had ‘marched, fought and won’ in the Falklands War, 15 years ago. On the Saturday night, after the presentation of new regimental colours by the Prince of Wales, the regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief, four of us found ourselves drinking on a veranda of the Second Battalion’s corporals’ and sergeants’ messes. We were talking, as most of us did that day, of things regimental and pondering the future for such aggressive units as the Paras in a world which requires soldiers to act as social workers rather than trained killers.
One of the former sergeants ventured, somewhat drunkenly, that the walls of the mess were a disgrace.’ ‘In what Way?’ I asked. ‘All that Falklands bollocks they’ve got up everywhere,’ he said. ‘It’s like a museum in there. You’d think the battalion had done nothing else over the past 50 years.’ This launched a bitter and resentful tirade against the way we gloried in the Falklands campaign and, as he put it, ‘whined on’ about the dead we had left behind ‘down south’. Our small group bridled as he spoke; this was dangerous talk, deeply offensive to those of us who had lost mates there. Our chippy friend had served with the battalion for more than 20 years and had been on attachment to another unit in the spring of 1982 when the Task Force set sail for the Falklands. But there was more to his argument than personal pique: as he said more than once, the year before the Falklands, the battalion had completed a 22- month tour of duty in Northern Ireland in which seven men were maimed for life and 21 killed – including 18 in the infamous Warren Point bombing on the day Earl Mountbatten was murdered. In the 25-day Falklands campaign, by contrast, the battalion fought two major battles, at Goose Green and Wireless Ridge, and only – though that can never be the right word – lost 18 men.
The Paras’ war in Northern Ireland has been going on for 28 years now, almost half the regiment’s 57 years, and has cost it 52 lives. In that time, the regiment has become synonymous with the troubled province. The withdrawal of the Paras from Northern Ireland in April seemed, at the time, an optimistic symbol of the beginning of the end of the Troubles. So it is a measure of the delicate balance of the peace process that the regiment was sent back in response to the Drumcree crisis last month. Most people I talked to within the regiment genuinely hope that this is the end of the violence.
‘It’s just been going on too long now. It’s time it came to an end,’ said former Sergeant Major Frank Pye, whose tours of duty in Northern Ireland stretched from 1972 to 1991. ‘It’s a terrible, thankless job and the blokes have just about seen enough of it.’
Andy Moodie served with the regiment between 1974 and 1986 and completed five tours of Northern Ireland. His father and three brothers all served in the regiment and his mother packed parachutes for it during the Second World War. ‘I hope the people on both sides of the divide in Ireland want peace. Though, really, now it’s all in the lap of the gods.’
But what one hopes for and what one gets are not necessarily the same thing, and when I asked whether soldiers believed that this time it really is the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, most were unsure. What they were sure of, however, was that the peace condition of early release for ‘political prisoners’ was totally wrong.
‘I feel terrible about it’, said Mick Quinn, another former Sergeant Major who saw the first of 12 tours of duty in Northern Ireland in 1971. ‘Okay, the young lad caught moving a pistol – in the interests of the peace, give him a break. But what people seem to be ignoring is that some of these men are mass murderers. Some of them planted bombs that killed 20 or 30 people. You let them out and the struggle is all they know. It’s dangerous because I don’t doubt for one minute that they’ll be right back bang at it again.’
I asked several former para- troopers born and bred in Ulster if they believed that the current tentative peace in Northern Ireland would last. Their answers were depressingly similar and to the point: ‘No chance’, ‘No way’, ‘Are you joking? It’s not just because of the IRA either. The problem now, as they saw it, is bringing into line the Protestant paramilitary groups. ‘If that lot ever get going,’ said one of these Paras, ‘they’re going to make the IRA took like a bunch of kindergarten kids. Believe me, they are armed to the teeth.’
In the early days of the civil rights marches in Northern Ireland, most British units appeared happy to walk the political line of appeasement. But the Paras arrived on the offensive, earning a reputation for toughness and what some describe as ‘brutality’ almost from day one.
‘When we first got to Belfast, we didn’t mess around,’ recalled Mick Quinn. ‘The units before us had put up with no-go zones and allowed themselves to be kicked around, left, right and centre. No way were we going to put up with any of that. We were the first to put men on the ground in four-man foot patrols and take the battle to the terrorist. Before we got there, all the “hats” had ever done was drive around in armoured cars or, if they did patrol, they did it in platoon strength. Of course, they were getting blown up every other day.’
Besides a reputation for toughness, the Paras also quickly earned a somewhat surprising reputation for fairness. ‘It wasn’t only the Catholics who hated us,’ explained Frank Pye. ‘Most of the Prods did as well. Unlike some of the jock regiments, who had more of a handle on that Prod-Catholic thing, and certainly had a bias for people who came from the Orange part of the map, our blokes were straight down the middle; with all of them. A little old Catholic lady I passed on patrol in Belfast one day summed it up best when she said: “You Paras are bastards, but at least you’re bastards to all of us.”’
In 1972, a patrol from 3 Para mounted the first ever raid on a Protestant Orange Lodge. Clive Walker, a sergeant with the battalion at the time and now a successful seaside restaurant owner, led the patrol. ‘Until then, no one, for basically political reasons, had ever dared to raid an Orange Lodge. Everyone knew that they had guns, but it was thought by the head shed [high command] that they would never turn them on British soldiers – which, as we all knew, was complete and utter rubbish.’ Earlier that year, one of the biggest gun battles that ever took place in Northern Ireland occurred when a patrol of Paras was fired on from the Shankhill Road. The resulting firefight lasted five hours and left six terrorists dead. ‘None of them was IRA,’ said Walker. ‘They were all Prods.’
Walker had received a tip-off from a particularly reliable informant that a large cache of arms was being held at the Orange Lodge on the Shankhill Road. ‘We couldn’t get permission to raid the lodge directly and I knew I’d be in big trouble if I did, so what we did was hit the house of the caretaker who lived next door. We knew that he had a partition door that led into the lodge proper and that was going to be our way in. We weren’t in the caretaker’s place more than two minutes before we uncovered three three-inch mortars stashed away in the roof. After that we entered the lodge, and the very first cupboard we came across had a 9mm pistol in it. ‘As soon as we found it, I got on the radio to brigade I-IQ and requested a search team to come to turn the place over properly. To my amazement they refused, ordering me to leave the lodge. I told them, “Look, We’ve already found weapons,” but they still insisted that we shouldn’t have raided the place.’ So what was a soldier to do? ‘I just did what any other paratrooper would have done in the same circumstances – I ignored the “hat’ idiots, radioed 3 Para battalion HQ and got one of our own search teams in. Our CO was over the moon – though God help me if we hadn’t found anything.’
In all, Walker and his men discovered 147 weapons that night, one of the largest arms caches ever uncovered in Northern Ireland.