The Parachute Regiment’s most significant moment in Northern Ireland, however, came on January 30, 1972, when paratroopers of Support Company 1 Para shot dead 14 unarmed civilians. The events of what was to become known as Bloody Sunday were to have vast political repercussions for the province, the most significant of which was that they triggered a huge recruitment of young, fresh minds to the IRA and handed the control of Nationalist sympathies from the civil rights organisations to Sinn Fein.
Even before the events of that day, it was argued – and still is – that soldiers of the Parachute Regiment were unsuitable for what amounted to a peace-keeping role and should never have been sent to serve in the province in the first place. Paratroopers are the army’s most aggressive troops. From day one of basic training, recruits have it drilled into them: ‘Close with the enemy and kill.’ When I first joined the regiment, seven- and-a-half years after Bloody Sunday, it was regarded as some sort of battle honour. The attitude throughout the regiment was: ‘That’ll teach the Paddies to go throwing stones at paratroopers. As training went on, though, it soon became apparent that 14 unarmed civilians lying dead in the street had something about it that wasn’t right. ‘Whatever you -think, you have to say that it was somewhat over the top,’ said Mick Quinn. ‘Although, if I’m honest, I’d also have to say that if it had been us in 3 Para who were there in the same circumstances, we would have done exactly the same thing.’
Over the course of the regimental reunion. I spoke to more than 50 current and former Paras, and asked what they believed had happened in Londonderry. Every single one was adamant that the soldiers of 1 Para had come under fire first. And if there is anyone to blame for what happened there, they believe it is the politicians who made the decision to send 1 Para from Belfast to Londonderry that day.
The IRA’s response to Bloody Sunday was swift, brutal, and set the tone for what they considered to be legitimate targeting. On February 22, 1972, a bomb exploded at the Parachute Regiment’s Officers’ Mess in Aldershot. The blast killed six civilian staff and Captain Gerry Weston, a Catholic army padre who, only the week before, had been awarded an MBE for gallantry for services in Northern Ireland.
Despite the murder of six civilians, the IRA high command described the attack as ‘a successful retaliatory operation’. For the Paras who continued to patrol the streets of Northern Ireland, it was to be business as usual: ‘Immediately after Bloody Sunday, it made no real difference to us.` said Quinn. ‘We treated the locals as we had before. What did change, though, was the attitude of the locals to us. When Paras moved into an area, a lot of baddies just moved out. They didn’t want to know. On the other hand, some of the hard men stayed, trying to gain the extra kudos you get in the IRA when you take out a Para.’ The British Army was exonerated by the Widgery Tribunal – which even seasoned Paras concede contained ‘enough white- wash to do the Taj-Mahal’ – but the Blair government, in the interests of the current peace process in Northern Ireland, opened a new inquiry in April into the events of Bloody Sunday. Public hearings are scheduled to open in Londonderry next February.
‘So what?’ said one 48-year-old ex- corporal somewhat matter-of-factly when asked his opinion. ‘Blair’s going to apologise for it. But it ain’t going to change anything. It ain’t going to bring none of them back. And so who cares? It means nothing.’
His view was by no means unique. No doubt a few regimental brigadiers and generals will fire off volleys to the letters page of the Daily Telegraph, but for most paratroopers past and present, it’s something that’s over and done with. That state of apathy would rapidly change if the new inquiry finds the soldiers of 1 Para who were in Londonderry that day guilty of anything – particularly, guilty of murder. As was proved by the recent case of paratrooper Lee Clegg, imprisoned in 1993 for the murder of 18-year-old joyrider Karen Reilly, when the chips are down the Parachute Regiment sticks up for its own. After a build-up of public opinion, stimulated when senior retired members of the regiment stopped writing letters and started banging on doors, Clegg was released in 1995 and is now back serving with 3 Para. Although the case provided an opportunity for the regiment to demonstrate one of its great strengths, it also provided an opportunity for the Paras to show what they are, and always have been, appallingly bad at.
At Christmas in 1990, the then leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock, made a flying visit to Northern Ireland to meet the soldiers of 3 Para. (Television celebrities visit children’s hospitals on Christmas morning, politicians visit soldiers in Northern Ireland.) Just three months after the shooting of Karen Reilly, a photo opportunity presented itself when Kinnock sat down in the Naafi at Palace Barracks in Belfast with a mug of tea in hand, to have an ‘all boys together’ chat with the troops. Unfortunately, as part of their seasonal decorations, some ‘jolly japers’ in 3 Para had made an almost life-size cardboard cut-out of a Vauxhall Astra (the model of car Karen Reilly was shot in), rounded off with a bloodied dummy slumped out of the driver’s side window. The collage was on the Naafi’s back wall with the caption: ‘Vauxhall Astras. Built by Robots. Driven by joyriders. Stopped by A Company.’ Naturally enough, the TV news crews and photographers couldn’t believe their luck and, the following day, paratroopers in Northern Ireland once again made the headlines. For the Paras, the collage rated along- side the black humour found in hospital operating theatres, in which you make a joke out of death in an attempt to accept it. But why didn’t someone have the sense to pull the thing down before the cameras arrived? Surely someone with pips on their shoulders could have made an on-the-spot command decision. But no. When it comes to PR, that’s the Parachute Regiment for you.
I’ve seen a senior officer in the Parachute Regiment state categorically on the television news that no soldier in Northern Ireland ever patrols with a ‘cocked weapon’, that is, a gun with a bullet ready and waiting in the chamber. I spent a year to the day in Northern Ireland and, whenever I went out to patrol the streets of Forkhill or the surrounding countryside, my weapon – and everyone else’s in the patrol – was always cocked. Despite what we were told during special Northern Ireland training, and what was written on one of the many Dos and Don’ts cards that we all carried in our top left-hand smock pocket, we felt we had a legitimate reason for going our own way. We were carrying weapons for a purpose – that we might just have to use them. And if such a situation ever arose, then the extra second that cocking a weapon takes before you can return fire could make the difference between a plot in the garrison cemetery back in Aldershot or another beer in the Naafi that night.
So when the senior ranks get economical with the truth about Northern Ireland, are they lying or are they just out of touch with the reality of the situation on the ground? Well, as with most things in life and death, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. I was never once ordered to cock my weapon before going out on patrol, but on my first day in Forkhill, when I was the ‘new boy’ of a four man patrol, the three other soldiers had all cocked their weapons, so l just followed. As for how high up such a blanket rejection of the rules was known, I don’t think it was far.
One afternoon, half-way through a three-day country patrol, we were joined by a senior officer and his adjutant for an ambush we were to lay that night on a bridge. When nightfall came, we formed a line for a last equipment check. The senior officer gave us a quick run-down on why it was so vitally important for us to spend the night lying out in the rain watching a rail-way bridge, followed by his order to ‘cock weapons’ (which was officially acceptable before setting an ambush). The senior officer and his adjutant cocked their rifles, and then… well, there was an embarrassed silence. Finally, our section commander said: ‘We’ve already done that, sir.’.
At the Trafalgar Arms, a staunch Para pub in Aldershot, I met Roy jones, a 68-year- old who had volunteered to join the regiment during his National Service, for very sound reasons. ‘Pay then was two guineas a week, but Paras got an extra 28 shillings, which was over half again, so I signed up, didn’t I.’ From the inside pocket of his regimental blazer, Roy took out a black-and-white photograph. Faded and creased by too many trips to regimental reunions, the picture captured his Mortar Platoon section when he first joined 3 Para in 1955. Looking at the pot belly and double chin that were him today, it was hard to identify Roy in the photograph, so he helped out. Around us in the bar, other Roys and Franks and Micks and Clives (and, I dare say, Kens) carried on drinking in the way only Paras can, and looked just like Roy and his mates in the photo. Over those beers in the bars of Aldershot, the memories and photographs of Northern Ireland mixed easily and naturally with those of the men like Roy: Palestine, Suez, Borneo, Aden, Cyprus, and scores of other foreign place names, now forgotten by most, where paratroopers once served. And killed. And died.
The last paratrooper to die in Northern Ireland was 20-year-old Private Marc Ramsey of 1 Para, who, maybe somewhat ironically, died of natural causes in Dungannon Camp on August 21 last year. Between Private Ramsey and Sergeant Michael Willetts, the first paratrooper to be killed there, and the posthumous recipient of the highest peacetime award for bravery, the George Cross, lie some 27 painful years, and another 50 soldiers of the regiment killed in the line of duty in the province. In Aldershot on the afternoon of the reunion, I met a 16-year-old Army cadet sergeant, Lewis Bishop. He doesn’t yet wear the coveted red beret of the Paras, but he does wear the cap badge and he has it all mapped out to join the regiment proper next year. To me, Lewis looked about 12, and it seemed almost unbelievable that the boy before me could, next year, find himself on the streets of Ulster. All we can do now is hope, for everyone’s sake, that neither Lewis or any of his comrades become paratrooper number 53 to die there.