Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Letter to Gerry

On Gerry Adams’s  release from custody, Author and ex-para Ken Lukowiak has some more good news for Gerry.  And from a very surprising source.  Past members of The Parachute Regiment.

Dear Gerry,

I see they’ve let you go.  Well, I’ve got some more good news for you, and, surprisingly, from of all places, it comes from some ex-members of The Parachute Regiment.  I’m in my local a couple of lunch times ago, having a few beers with three other ex Paras.  All of whom, at one time, like me, served in that arsehole of a place that you call home.  Anyway, it’s my round and I’m at the bar, when I look up at the TV on the wall and see your grinning face.  The TVs in our local have the sound muted, but to compensate have telex sub-titles running along the bottom of the screen.  Turns out that these sub-titles are a good minute or so behind the pictures, so at first I think they’re trying to pin the death of Peaches Geldof on you.   And you know, in my defense, anything is possible with you Gerry.  And Peaches’s Da is Irish and a celebrity.  As was Shergar.

With drinks in hand I return to the table and ask:
“Did Gerry Adams kill Peaches Geldof?”
“No.  You fucking 2 Para Twat”.  Says Big Mac (He’s ex 3 Para)  “They’ve nicked him for the murder of that woman, haven’t they.”
“What woman?” I asked.
“That Irish one.”

Well, that hardly narrowed it.

Naturally enough, the conversation at the table then turns to you Gerry.  And, as I’m sure you can imagine – it’s all a bit negative.  Truth is, us paratroopers, we’re not keen on you Gerry.  Not keen at all.  Although, some of your mates did murder some of our mates.  So I guess it’s all to be expected.

Gerry and mate

Gerry and mate at another mate’s funeral.

But then ‘Moi’, the self-appointed liberal of our group (my politics are only slightly to the right of Thatcherism)  I come up with a question that causes our group to stop and ponder.  Andy  (also ex 3 Para) was the first to break the silence when he asked:
“Why can I only hang one of them?  I want to hang both of them”
“Well you can’t” I explain.  “The game is that you can only hang one of them, and you have to hang one of them, but the choice is yours.”
“In that case” says Andy  “I’d hang Martin.”
“Yeah, Martin” agrees Big Mac.
“Definitely Martin” says Pete.

So, I’m pleased to pass on, that with my vote added, four out of four ex-paratroopers – who expressed a preference – would rather hang your BFF Martin than you.

So, it’s a big thumbs up for you on that one Gerry!   Even though Martin’s the one who had dinner with the Queen.  (No we can’t work it out either).

To be honest,  I’m against capital punishment, so, it was left to me, I wouldn’t hang either of you.  My now dear departed Catholic father once said to me that it was better for ten guilty men to be set free than for one innocent man to be hanged.  And that’s stuck with me.  My three friends disagree with me completely on this.  Although,  at the same time, they would fight, quite literally, for my right to say it.

If they do eventually bang you up for the murder of ‘that woman’, and it’s all fingers crossed at our end,  then I’m expecting great things from you Gerry.  If I don’t see a picture of you in the papers, wrapped in a blanket and covered in your own shit, then I’m going to be most disappointed.

So don’t let the cause down.  Do the right thing.  Like your mate Bobby did.

Eat lots!

Ken

P.S.  As I’m sure you know already  ‘that woman’ was called Jean McConville.  She was a mother of ten, who was taken from her home at gun point, tortured, and then executed.  By your mates Gerry.  Not mine.  Your mates.  And if you did have anything to do with that:  then I really  don’t know how you sleep at night.  I really don’t.

Paras in Ulster (pt 2 of 2)

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.

Paras In Ulster (pt 1 of 2)

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.

Paras in Ulster Part 2

 

A Quiet Pint With The Locals (pt 2 of 2)

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.

Forkhill001

Ken Lukowiak back at Forkhill

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.

A Quiet Pint With The Locals (pt 1 of 2)

(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.

Forkhill003

Ken Lukowiak in Forkhill Army Base 1980

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?

Part 2