Heads or …..

May 26, 2012

When The Troubles boiled over again in 1968 it was not triggered by any action of the IRA. It was a threat from Protestant militants that they were about to initiate a blood bath. They would attack the Catholic community. Arm caches had been uncovered in protestant strongholds, substantiating the capability, if not the intent, to make good on the threat, and intelligence indicated that there were many more such hoards. The British Government took relatively swift action to insert more troops into Northern Ireland.

My unit at the time was an integral part of the Parachute Logistic Regiment and an element of 16 Parachute Brigade. However, we were not always deployed in support of our parent brigade and in this instance were sent to Belfast to support the regular units there. The majority of the units representing the Airborne Brigade were sent to Londonderry.

Our unit was to occupy four dilapidated, empty cottages at Long Kesh, later to become the site of the ‘H’ Blocks of Long Kesh notoriety, but which was at that time a disused, grass-overgrown civil airfield. Within a short period, we had fixed the holes in the roof, cleaned up the rooms and applied some paint to make the houses into reasonable accommodation.

Our raison d’être was to re-supply the local units with the full range of items necessary to function efficiently, in addition to which we operated a mobile bath unit. We were also on call as reserve foot soldiers to take part in riot control, night patrols etc. During our time there, the on call requirement dominated our commitment. We had the responsibility for security, mainly crowd or riot control, when needed, in the Madrid Street/Prince Albert Bridge area of Belfast.

Initially, when we did night patrols, we would be greeted, in the Catholic area, at say, 3am, by an old lady with tea and potato scones or at 4am by a pensioner offering each of us a cigarette. However, the IRA frowned on this generosity and it soon disappeared. We were to be kept busy during the early days by disturbances, initiated by the UVF/UDA militants, housed in an HQ, whose whole front was a depiction in red, white and blue of the Union flag, opposite the end of Madrid Street.

On one occasion, as the crowd gathered in front of their HQ, we noticed a young guy, festooned with cameras and wearing a blue crash helmet. As Paras, we wanted everyone to know exactly who was there to prevent undue violence, and refused to wear helmets, preferring our red berets. The crowd, as it increased in size, became more vociferous and threatening.

During the build-up, we heard from the cameraman that he worked for Le Monde in France, that he had recently covered the student riots in Paris, where he had found the helmet to be essential, providing all the security and safety he needed. Within minutes, the brouhaha flared up and we parted company.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, several of us actually laughed aloud, struggling as we were, to prevent the crowd rampaging down Madrid Street to commit mayhem, when we saw the young Frenchman being stretchered out by our Medics. Apparently, some rioter, blissfully unaware of the photographer’s philosophy regarding the blue helmet, had cheerfully kneed him in the groin.
(to be continued)

One Response to “Heads or …..”

  1. Great cliffhanger…but what do you do for an encore? Breathlessly awaiting the next installment as, I’m sure, is the photographer.

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