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“PERMISSION GRANTED.” Just two words scribbled on a notepad by James Callaghan, home secretary in Harold Wilson’s Labour government on the August 14, 1969, in answer to a request to deploy British troops in the North of Ireland, set in motion an operation that lasted four decades.
Wilson’s government wasted no time in pushing ahead with reforms. The publication of a report by Lord Hunt sparked violence when the recommendations included disarming the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and abolishing the B-specials.
Ironically, it was during a riot in support of the RUC that Constable Victor Arbuckle became the first police officer to die in the Troubles, shot by a loyalist gunman.
A change of government from Labour to Edward Heath’s Conservatives in June 1970 brought with it a change in how the British army operated. Between July 3 and 5, 20,000 residents in West Belfast were locked down on curfew. Floorboards were ripped up, rooms ransacked and reports of residents being subjected to unjustified violence while British soldiers and RUC officers searched for IRA weapons.
The decision to search for IRA weapons, while ignoring those held by loyalists, left the nationalist community in no doubt that the British army had moved from being part of the solution to becoming part of the problem.
Instead of leading to peace and less violence, the situation deteriorated. Hostility towards British soldiers increased and in February 1971 Robert Curtis became the first serving British soldier to die during the Troubles.
Within weeks the number had risen to six. On March 10, three off-duty British soldiers drinking in a city centre bar were enticed away with a promise of a party. All three were later found dead.
August 9 1971 saw the start of internment without trial for those suspected of being members of the IRA. Again, like the search for weapons, only Republican paramilitaries were targeted, and as we know, on the same date, the first of the 11 victims of the Ballymurphy massacre were killed. However, it would be 1973 before internment applied to loyalist paramilitaries too.
Prior to Bloody Sunday in January 1972, over 40 British soldiers had been killed. The security forces too had been responsible for a number of deaths, some in questionable circumstances. In April that year a new statistic was added to the record books when 11-year-old Francis Rowntree became the first person to die after being struck by a “rubber bullet.”
Although Francis was the first victim, sadly he wasn’t the last. By the time the hostilities were over, a total of 17 people had died, many in questionable circumstances after being struck by a baton round with eight of them being children.
Statistics show that by refusing to accept that security forces may well have acted outside the law, such as by failing to comply with the “yellow card” when opening fire, incorrect use when firing baton rounds and not forgetting the hostile searches of people and property, this not only increased the hatred towards British soldiers but increased support for the IRA making 1972 the bloodiest year with nearly 500 lives lost of which over 100 were British soldiers
But not all deaths caused by the security forces occurred in the North of Ireland. March 1988 saw one of the most controversial incidents of the Troubles when members of the Special Air Service, dressed in plain clothes, shot dead three members of the IRA, Sean Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairead Farrell on the streets of Gibraltar.
The three were suspected of travelling to Gibraltar to carry out a bomb attack on military personnel.
At the time of the shooting, all were unarmed nor did their car contain a bomb. However, a set of keys allegedly found on Farrell were said to belong to a car parked 50 miles away in Marbella which contained explosives.
At their joint funeral in West Belfast, loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone threw hand grenades and fired shots at mourners. Undeterred, a number of them gave chase. However, by the time Stone was detained, 60 mourners were left injured and three lay dead including IRA member Kevin Brady. Sadly, the funeral of Brady would also result in more deaths.
As the cortege of Kevin Brady moved along the Andersontown Road towards Milltown cemetery, a car drove into the funeral procession. In it were two British army corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes, dressed in civilian clothes, who had inadvertently strayed into its path.
Believing this was another loyalist attack, the car was soon blocked in. With no escape, the British soldiers were overpowered, dragged from the vehicle and beaten before being driven away in a taxi. Now in the hands of the IRA, they were stripped to their underwear and searched. Once their British army ID cards were found they were shot dead.
Despite the killing there were acts of bravery too. Heroic acts committed by people like Michael Willetts of the Parachute Regiment, who in Springfield Road police station in 1971, knowing he only had seconds to act, placed himself between a bomb that had been thrown into the lobby and four civilians. Taking the full impact of the explosion, Willetts died from his injuries and was awarded a Posthumous George Cross for his bravery.
We also have people like Fr Hugh Mullan, shot dead while attending a wounded man during the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 and Fr Edward Daly waving a white bloodstained handkerchief and the group of people carrying Jack Duddy having been shot on Bloody Sunday in 1972: any of them could have become the next victim.
However, some acts of bravery went ignored. In 1971 two men on the Falls road risked their lives during burst of gunfire to carry a British soldier shot by the IRA into the nearby hospital.
The soldier died but there were no awards for the two men that risked their lives. Instead the family of the soldier was told the locals attempted to steal his body to deny them a funeral. It would take until 2012 before the family discovered the truth.
There were also acts of kindness like the one demonstrated by a woman in West Belfast.
Despite suffering grief through the actions of the British army, this lady knelt down and cradled a young soldier who had been shot. When asked by a neighbour why she did it the woman calmly replied, “I’m a mother, and that boy is some mother’s child.”
Although a victim of the Troubles, this lady didn’t see this dying soldier as her enemy. What she saw was someone’s child about to die and knew somewhere, a mother would soon feel the pain she had suffered.
A mother’s act of pure compassion shown to a dying British soldier. By contrast the British government has consistently denied to show any compassion to the families in the North of Ireland by refusing, when requested, to release files that may hold key facts surrounding their loved ones death.
Isn’t it ironic that the same two words that began this piece of history, if used now by by agencies of the British government to answer the families’ request to release documents, could bring their fight to an end?
Just two words: “permission granted.”
Richard Rudkin is a former soldier in the British Army who was stationed in the North of Ireland during the Troubles.
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