I decided a while back to conduct a series of interviews with a number of former combatants and others, including victims of the violence, political activists and ordinary NI residents, all of whom, like myself, lived through the Conflict, or at least the majority of it. I underestimated the difficulty of the undertaking. Most of my close friends fall into one or more of the aforementioned categories, however, Ulster folk are well known for being ‘tight lipped‘, and, for a number of reasons, I did not want to interview people I am personally close to. Therefore I sought out others who I felt had a worthwhile perspective and a personal story to tell. Making contact with, and introducing myself to, such persons wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was earning their trust, getting them to open up, and talk openly about their experiences. It is an ongoing process (and if you feel you would like to be interviewed please don’t hesitate to get in touch, via this blog or my twitter account), but a process I feel is more than worth the time and effort.
This first interview was conducted last week via Skype, (with everything recorded on an old fashioned dictaphone because I can’t type very fast!). I tried to ask pertinent questions, honest questions, and believe that I got honest and candid answers in return. The interviewee is a former soldier who served two tours in Northern Ireland, first in 1990/91, then in 1994/95. He is a native of Merseyside and a family man with three children. Due to security concerns, both his and my own, I will not reveal the regiment he served in, his name or a few other small details. To some, this may seem somewhat paranoid, but anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of Irish republican death threats etc, will understand the need to exercise caution, especially online. For the sake of this interview I will refer to the interviewee as ‘BH’. Questions are in italics, answers in bold. I hope you find it insightful and worth a read.
First let me say thankyou for agreeing to this interview . Did you have any reservations about talking about your time in Ulster? BH: No, not really. It was a while ago but it’s still pretty clear in my head. To be honest I don’t really think about that part of my life too much. Thankfully I wasn’t involved in anything too bad.
What were your first impressions of Northern Ireland? BH: Well my very first thought was how nice the place was. The countryside I mean. The scenery and stuff. When I was first over there I couldn’t really get my head round it, er, you know the reasons for all the trouble…all the killing. I suppose, like a lot of other lads I just thought it was all about Proddys against Catholics, you know, just like a religious thing. But I caught on quick that, er…that there was a lot more to it. I mean, the IRA and UVF boys weren’t exactly going to church every Sunday or saying their prayers every night, you know? I, er…still don’t know everything about the politics of it all, but I know much more than I did when I was a 22 year old kid coming to Ulster for the first time.
Did you feel like the Army shouldn’t of been here? Did you have an opinion? BH: No. I mean I felt like it was important for us to be there. What would have happened if the Army hadn’t of been brought in? In the early days, er, at the very start, in 1969 or whenever it was…the Orange side might have wiped out the Catholics. I mean, pushed them out. Forced them out. Then later on the IRA were just killing and blowing up pubs and stuff, er…just sort of leaving like a trail of blood all over the country, so, you know, they had to be stopped…they had to be prevented from just killing at will. I think a lot of the boys felt like that.
Did you ever come under fire during your time here? BH: Yeah, once. Thankfully that was the only time. We, ah, I think we were in County Fermanagh. Out in the middle of nowhere anyhow, just sheep and fields. We were very near to the border…if I remember right. There were two or three IRA behind a hedge…in this sort of, er, farmyard I suppose you’d call it. Full of old cars and tractors and stuff. They had a machine gun and opened fire on us but they hit nothing, we were up the hill from them, er, we must have been a fair distance away and it was really stormy. They couldn’t have hit a barn door. Lucky for us I suppose. They fired off a few rounds just, like…er, 12 or 15 rounds. They just left the weapon when we came down the hill. It took us a while, you know, to edge our way round, but er…they were just gone. I remember us talking and saying that they would probably get shot for just leaving the weapon there.
What was your honest opinion of the republican groups, the Provos and the INLA etc? BH: Well, really I always thought of them, the IRA like, as being hypocrites, you know? They said they were fighting a war, that’s what they called it, a war, but they thought that nobody should shoot back at them. I mean, what the f**k? You’re supposed to be fighting this war but you’re the only ones allowed to fire? All this ‘Shoot to Kill’ s***e and that…all these, inquiries and everything, what’s it all for? If they were at war then fair’s fair, I mean, in a war you’re going to get shot at, you’re going to lose a few boys. Even the like of the Taliban and them lot, they er…they don’t even come out with this sort of s***e, you know?
And what did you think of the Loyalist groups, the UFF and UVF? Well, you know, I…I wouldn’t say what they did was right. They killed a lot of…er, innocent people, people just going about round town or whatever, but, er…sometimes I have to say we were relieved when they got one of the real bad guys. One of the real players…you know? I remember there was this bastard in…ah, I don’t honestly know where this was but it was out in the country somewhere…and the Prods killed this f****r, this IRA guy, and after that there were no IRA attacks for, ah…about four months after he was killed in that area. I think the ordinary soldier felt, well, happy I suppose, yeah…happy. This bastard was out of the way, and he was one of their top boys, you know? I think the RUC and UDR lads were even more happy about it. The Loyalists should have concentrated on getting the top boys in the IRA. They could do it when they wanted to. I remember one Sunday afternoon…they, the Prods I mean…they wiped out 3 or 4 IRA boys in one go, so er, they could do it…that’s what they should have done. Killing innocent people, civvies I suppose you’d say…that was wrong, nobody should have been doing that.
When you were in Northern Ireland did you feel under constant threat, did you feel like you could have been ‘hit’ anywhere? Er…no actually. There were places, even in Fermanagh and Tyrone that were…I suppose you’d call them ‘safe places’, you know? They were either Proddy towns or else just…sort of, quiet little places. The last time I was over there I…spent a lot of time round about Newtownards and that. Round that way we [soldiers] felt we were alright. We were, sort of, safe I suppose. I loved it round there. It was so nice…sort of more relaxed than a lot of places. More laid back than most places in England anyway!
So you do have some happy memories of your time here? [Laughs] Yeah. Yeah definitely. I had some good nights over there. Second time round, er…the IRA had called the ceasefire, the Loyalists were about to, we all knew that’s the way it would be, you know? Everybody knew. So things were sort of quiet. A lot of the time anyway. That wasn’t always a good thing but. When it was like that, they, the NCOs and that would find us something to do…usually something crap. But yeah, yeah I had some good laughs and stuff. It wasn’t all dodging bullets and that, er…a lot of the time things were, sort of like, just killing time and stuff.
Were you surprised when the Provos and then the CLMC called ceasefires? Well…like I say, er, the Loyalist ceasefire wasn’t so much a surprise. Actually the first time I was over there the Loyalists had had a ceasefire for a couple of months. What was the IRA going to do, just keep killing and bombing forever? They…they had to stop sometime, they were getting nowhere fast. A lot of the lads didn’t think it would last. They thought the IRA were just, sort of giving themselves a breather or whatever, but I thought…I suppose I thought it would probably last, I don’t know, I just sort of thought that they’d have to pack it in at some point. Then the Prods had to stop, you know? They said they were…defending themselves against the IRA, so…when they stopped, the Proddys had to stop, sooner or later.
Could the Army have wiped out the Provisional IRA, had the government taking the gloves off? I dunno. Really I just don’t know. If…ah, the IRA had come out and fought we…we would’ve wiped them out. In a stand up fight I mean. But they knew that…they weren’t stupid, you know what I mean? They knew that…that’s why with them it was always, sort of hit and run style. I think the S.A.S maybe could’ve gone into all their…sort of, strongholds and stuff. Wiped them out like that, but…er…would there have been other lads coming up to start it up again? Maybe not like, but…it’s hard to say. Probably we could have, yeah. I just don’t know.
What was your opinion of the PM’s apology for ‘Bloody Sunday’? Well…er…I think probably he needed to say it. In one way I agreed with it. But the, er, the IRA have never apologised for their, er…the stuff they done. At the end of the day if them people, the ones that got shot…if ah…if they hadn’t have been on an illegal march and…er, throwing stones and that, they would have been safe, you know? But…I think it was probably for the best, the apology I mean. If it helps people over there to move forward, but like I say…part of me was a bit f****d off by it I suppose.
Do you think Irish nationalists will ever achieve their aim of an all island republic? Er…no. To be perfectly honest I don’t…no. The thing is, er…when it comes down to it, how many of them really, really want it? A united Ireland I mean. It’s like, they say, ‘oh we’re Irish, we’re Irish, we want nothing to do with the Brits’ but…ah…you know, look at how they live. I suppose I mean, er, look at their life, how is it any different to somebody over here [Mainland UK]? They go out for a drink and that on a Saturday night, they come home, they go to work, their wives or girlfriends or whatever watch Coronation Street and X-Factor and that. Most republicans support an English football team [laughs]. If they had to vote tomorrow…if they had to actually do it, how many would, er…actually bite the bullet and vote themselves out? I can’t see things changing over there. Not for a really long time anyway, you know?
If you could turn the clock back, would you still join the Army? Oh yeah, yeah. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I…ah…made something of myself, you know? I went into the Army a boy and I came out of it a man. I’m glad I joined up, it’s something…er, at the time I was scared, you know? Like when I first joined up. Not scared of getting killed or that, it was just sort of…fear of failure I suppose. Fear of not being up to it. Not being able to do what I was told to do, but I was fine in the end. It turned out well, I’m glad I joined up, f**k knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t joined the Army.
Thankyou for your time BH, and thankyou for your honesty. It’s been interesting listening to you. I hope people read this interview and get a wee bit of insight into what life was like for soldiers serving in NI. No problem. It’s been a pleasure mate. Good luck with the other interviews.
My sincere thanks to ‘BH’ for his time and co-operation. More interviews will follow over the next few months.