GRAEME COUSINS finds out more about a major event for veterans which is taking place in Lisburn this August
A major parade will take place in August to commemorate the 1,242 men, women and children who were murdered during the Troubles because they were serving in, or had a connection with, the security forces.
The event which has been organised by the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Association (NIVA) will take place in Lisburn on August 17 - marking the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Banner in the Province – the longest running military deployment in the history of the British Armed Forces.
A press briefing was held yesterday in Wallace Park to launch the parade with several bereaved relatives of murdered security personnel in attendance.
Also at the event was Charlie Lawson who is an ambassador for NIVA.
The Enniskillen-born actor – best known for playing the role of Jim McDonald in Coronation Street – told the News Letter: “I think this parade is vitally important. I spend my time trying to defend this wee country over in England where I live.
“Most people just want to sweep it under the carpet what happened here.
“It’s only 150 miles away across the Irish Sea but really people are not that interested (in Northern Ireland affairs), with a few notable exceptions.”
He added: “I’m really looking forward to getting the chance to meet some of the widows and the families who are forgotten about.
“Also it’s important to realise that the veterans over here do this very much on their own because nobody gives a monkey’s over there (in England). “I’m looking forward to the day immensely. If it raises awareness of veterans over here from all the combined services then so much the better.”
Of the political situation in Northern Ireland, Mr Lawson said: “I spent my time trying to defend Northern Ireland. People in England don’t really understand the politics of Northern Ireland, but then there’s probably people in Northern Ireland who don’t understand it either.
“It’s annoyingly close for us not to be sitting together at Stormont and getting things back up and running. Maybe that’s easy for me to say because I don’t live here. From where I’m standing, Michelle and Arlene need to sit down and get on with it, no pre-conditions, just get on with it.”
The Northern Irish actor revealed yesterday that his father had helped to establish the Vanguard movement which opposed the imposition of direct rule of Northern Ireland from Westminster early in the Troubles.
He told the Press Association: “My father was involved in local politics; he was one of the instigators of the Vanguard movement down there with Bill Craig and Harry West and he was a target.
“We were visited on numerous occasions by strange men in camouflage who would appear on the doorstep and have sandwiches and they were there to protect us.
“The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were regular visitors.
“The Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) were always round and about making sure everybody was all right and some strange guys from England would appear with no cap badges and mother would make them sandwiches.”
Mr Lawson, who lives in Chesire but visits the Province regularly with his wife, said he was in very good health after suffering a mini-stroke on stage last year.
He told the News Letter he would be happy to go back to Coronation Street if the opportunity arose: “I spoke to the producer about two weeks ago. They’ve always treated me very well. I’d love to go back if they found the right story to bring Jim back.”
Although Mr Lawson is not himself a veteran, he comes from a family with a rich military tradition – his parents and three uncles all having been in service.
He said: “One of my uncles was in the Royal Irish Fusiliers. He was killed in the second battle at San Salvo. I’m going to be making a documentary about him in June hopefully.”
The widow of murdered prison officer David Black said it was only after her husband’s death that her family could proudly talk about his role in keeping the Province safe.
At yesterday’s launch of the veterans parade she said: “For me this is a really important event. David was killed six and a half years ago. It’s very poignant and very personal.
“I think it’s going to be a really emotional day, but for me I think there’s going to be a lot of pride in it as well.
“We always had to keep David’s job a secret, you couldn’t openly talk about it. I remember the day of his funeral, it was the first time we could walk with pride behind David with everybody knowing what he did.”
She added: “I want to try to raise the profile of the prison service and prison officers because I think they’re a hidden service. People often forget about them.
“I’ve been to commemorative services where the prison service haven’t even been mentioned. It’s because people don’t see them. They’re behind a wall. People don’t appreciate what they do on a daily basis to keep us all safe.”
Mrs Black said her family were very security conscious because of her husband’s job: “David was going into work with people who had been involved in the Troubles, they were in there for a reason. They were personally saying things to him like his address, his number plate, reminding him they knew all about him.
“The threat was constant, but you learn to live with it because it becomes the norm.”
Of the time that has passed since David’s death, she said: “There’s times it feels like a few months ago. Then there’s other times it feels like a lifetime since I sat down and had a conversation with David.”
Discussing how her family has coped with the tragic loss, Mrs Black said: “It’s been really difficult. It’s a step at a time, a day at a time. There’s been so many twists and turns along the way. You can never plan, you have to just face it when it comes.”
Last week David’s son Kyle, running as a DUP councillor, was elected to Mid Ulster Council. Mrs Black said: “I’m so proud of both my children and what they’ve achieved. I told them, these evil people took away your dad’s life, don’t let them take away your lives.”
Mary Moreland’s husband John was killed as he sat in the cab of his coal lorry in Downpatrick on December 16, 1988.
The 36-year-old was a part-time member of the UDR, as was his wife, who is now chair of the War Widows’ Association.
At yesterday’s parade launch she said: “My husband was killed nine days before Christmas. He was going about his day job as a coal merchant in Downpatrick. The IRA waited for him to finish his delivery then shot him dead.
“He was giving a service to the community during the day and again at night as a part-time Ulster Defence soldier. Because of that he was killed.”
She commented: “This parade will be a way to remember those people who gave their time and in some case their lives to protect the community in which they grew up and lived in and to make it a safer place for future generations.”
Peter Sefton’s parents James, a retired RUC reservist, and Ellen were killed on June 6, 1990 by an under-car bomb planted by the IRA.
He said: “Given the lack of memorials to Operation Banner, it’s important that there is some commemoration of the people who lost their lives and also those who were terribly maimed – physically and mentally.”
Commenting on soldier prosecutions he said: “As far as the prosecution of soldiers is concerned it seems that it’s disproportionate while cases like my parents remain in a box.”
In terms of the August 17 parade in Lisburn, the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Association (NIVA) has invited veterans from Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Republic of Ireland security forces, their civilian employees and emergency services who served during the deployment of British forces in Northern Ireland in Operation Banner, from 1969-2007, to take part. Relatives of those killed are also invited to watch the parade.
Over 10,000 people are expected to converge on Lisburn for the parade on Saturday, August 17. A special drumhead service will take place in the grounds of Wallace Park to begin proceedings.
From there, veterans will parade into Lisburn via the Lisburn War Memorial, past the UDR Statue, the site of the 1988 Lisburn fun-run bombing, up Bow Street and back for dispersal at Wallace Park.
The NIVA says that Op Banner veterans and their families have not been given the same public recognition for their service in the way formal parades have been held for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. .
An NIVA spokesman said: “This parade is purely a commemoration to remember the sacrifices that all branches of the security forces made during Op Banner and that continue to this day by the PSNI, NIPS and the Bomb Disposal Squads.
“Service personnel have to act within the law of land, but this does not diminish the fact that veterans justifiably feel that the scales of justice are being tilted against them, with the likes of Soldier F being sacrificed as a sop to placate republicans whose latent threat of a return to violence is seen by them as influencing government policy.”
Veterans and their relatives who wish to take part in the parade can do so simply by turning up on the day.