This latest contribution to our series on legacy is a previously unpublished excerpt of an interview with Major General JULIAN THOMPSON, who was speaking to the News Letter about his book on Dunkirk. Here, he talks about serving in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and about the prosecutions of veterans who served here (links to other articles in the series beneath this):
I served in Northern Ireland in 1972, at the height of the Troubles.
It was very nasty. I was in Belfast for short periods.
In my last tour of Northern Ireland I was a commanding officer in Bessbrook Mill, in south Armagh in 1976.
Being in south Armagh, which was known as ‘bandit country’ because it was right on the border, was very different from Belfast.
It was very much a rural problem and it was really more like soldiering, in that one was operating in a way like soldiers — the only urban place we had was Newry.
Newry, which was large enough and had its own problems, was surrounded by countryside.
You had two problems to sort out simultaneously. By then there was a lot of inter sectarian killings.
That was the main problem and we used to have observation posts to watch for the naughty boys, try to capture them.
The man in the street was not friendly towards us, in Crossmaglen, but I didn’t find it demoralising at all.
I liked them actually, I used to try and joke with them about things even though I knew they were trying to work out how to murder me.
And they went along with the joking.
I once asked Paddy Short, who ran Shorts bar, and was related to the Labour MP Clare Short, you don’t like the RUC?
No, he said.
You want the garda?
No, he replied, I don’t want any of them.
I mean it was a sort of lawless place south Armagh.
I think in 1972 I had a feeling of this is mad, why is happening, what’s the point in this?
I had not been to Northern Ireland before.
I think the current narrative of the Troubles, of a brutal British state, is an unfair summary.
I think if I may say so the British army behaved exceedingly well. OK, there were occasional outbreaks where things were done that shouldn’t have been done but when you think it lasted as long as it did, 30 years, I can think of few armies in the world who would have behaved as well as the British army did.
One of the things we forget is that the army came in here, into Northern Ireland, originally to protect the Catholic minority against some pretty unfortunate events.
At the beginning the army was very much the darling of the Catholic community here because they were protecting them.
That finished in about 1970 I would guess.
I think what happened is that the IRA twigged that they were losing popularity and they had better do something to get it back and the way to do it of course was to provoke the army into doing things, which then made them look bad and they were able to say: ‘look at these guys, aren’t they awful?’
Then I think internment was a bad move, actually in retrospect, and we made some mistakes I think. I should say the British government made some mistakes. I think internment is a very good example.
It seemed to me it was not a clever idea. But it was a hell of a difficult problem and I think it was handled remarkably by the security forces and I include in that of course the RUC who bore the brunt of it.
They had a huge number of casualties. And the UDR was terrific.
I learnt a lot in Northern Ireland. I learnt about chaos and how it all goes wrong at the last minute.
I learnt about dealing with the press, funnily enough, because the British army was very good then at dealing with the media.
You know corporals would be allowed to journalists, because in the beginning the army used to encourage people to talk to journalists.
I mean now, dare I say it there is a control freak attitude in the MoD, you know they have a fit if they think anyone is going to talk to the media, don’t they?
In those days, before you started a tour you had a day training with real media people and you were interviewed, all your leaders, as CO I was interviewed and my company commanders and all the important people interviewed and given a hard time and at the end of the day you were given a list, this guy is good with the media, this guy don’t let him anywhere near it.
You know, and actually it helped hugely in the Falklands because the navy had no experience of dealing with the media at all.
The prosecution of elderly soldiers now is monstrous, absolutely monstrous.
If members of the extremist organisations have been given a get out of jail card by Mr Blair, did he forget about the soldiers?
I suspect he did you see.
And I think it is absolutely disgraceful and I think the British parliament should say: Stop it.
As to a statute of limitations to prevent the prosecution of veterans, I think it is a good idea.
I think it is wrong to say it equates the security forces with the terrorists.
Blair did a deal in order to get the peace process which was a good thing to do — I think the peace process was an excellent idea, and I understand that.
But it should have been a two sided deal.
• Major General Julian Thompson was born in 1934 and spent the Second World War as a boy in Calcutta.
He is a former Royal Marines officer who commanded 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War. Three years after that war he retired to write books, and has now published 18 of them.
This interview is an excerpt of an interview that was carried out in September 2017 when he was in Belfast to talk about his book on Dunkirk (Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory)
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