Andy McNab said he cannot forsee the Army ever returning to Ulster on the same scale as the past.
The SAS veteran-turned-author was giving a talk at a private members’ club in Belfast yesterday, following a similar engagement the day before.
It is understood to be the first time on a Northern Irish trip that he has been speaking in civilian locations, rather than on an Army base, for example.
The author – who uses a pseudonym and whose identity is tightly guarded – was also promoting his new book, and in an interview with The News Letter the man who saw his first major combat in Northern Ireland gave his views on the Province he encounters today.
“There’s still problems of course, but it’s going to take a while for it to all settle down,” he said.
“That, I think, will be another couple of generations’ time.”
Does he ever think the Army will be back again in the manner they were previously deployed?
“No, never,” he said. “First of all, the pure cost and the lack of manpower that the UK possesses even now, and it’s going to be less than that...
“At one stage it was 35,000 troops on the ground here. So just pure economics and numbers, boots on the ground, it would be impossible to do that.”
However, times have changed and it is not just a matter of strength.
“Politically it’s a really big step,” he said. “And I don’t believe any politician would fall into that trap again.”
He had fought fierce battles with republicans during his past tours (right), and said he found Sinn Fein in government “quite difficult to swallow”.
But he added: “Whether we like it or not, that is where we are. And ultimately at the end of the day, the casualty rate is down, certainly prosperity is up... The fact is, all politicians, everyone, has got to be realistic. The only way that it is going to stop is by people talking and then working together.”
He added: “It’s never going to be perfect. The whole of Belfast is not going to gather and go out for a big picnic.. However, there’s got to be a process where things can work.”
And at present, his verdict is: “It’s doing all right.”
Asked about the view that another massive operation in the Province would be impossible, an MoD spokesman said security was a matter for the PSNI.
An MoD statement read: “It is incredibly unlikely that the Army would need to deploy to Northern Ireland in any kind of large scale security operation in the future..”
But it also added: “The Future Army of 2020... will remain capable of conducting large scale, enduring operations in any number of locations around the world.”
Mr McNab was promoting his book Silencer, and was asked if he ever has any qualms about whether his writing glamorises violence.
He said to kill people is not glamorous, and he does not feel he does that himself – and only seeks to “create pictures in people’s heads”. “The reality is there are people who do like to fight. That’s why people do join the military,” he said.
“There are people who do like conflict, which for me, I see it as just as much a profession as anything else, quite frankly.”
It had been reported the first time he killed someone was when he was confronted with an IRA gang in Keady, south Armagh, in 1979.
Asked about this, he said: “Absolutely, it was the first time, yeah. We walked into an ambush, basically. They weren’t ambushing us, as a four-man patrol, but they were getting ready to get into a cattle truck that was armoured up with sandbags and steel plates.”
He said the idea was the IRA team would drive through the town, then suddenly pop up and fire at a patrol, before continuing south. “There was six of them that were getting ready to do that. Typically, they had the masks on, the M16s, all of that.”
He said the group had been doing a “PR” display to residents of a housing estate before getting in the truck.
When the two sides met a firefight ensued.
He said during the gun battle he killed a man, making it the first kill of the tour.
It was during daylight and was incredibly close, with the two sides only about 15 metres away, he estimated.
This was in contrast with many other firefights which were mostly at night and were, he said, “frankly quite enjoyable”.