Smoke and Mirrors

May 27, 2012

The security forces (SF), are naturally obliged to act within the bounds of legality, while performing their duties of maintaining law and order. The disruptors, who have no such constraints, are at a distinct advantage. Organisers of disturbances have the edge in determining when, where and how civil disobedience will manifest itself. They know they can wear down the resilience of the SF by false starts, bogus reports, and deployment of numerous fake IED, with lethal explosive devices salted among them, much as the IRA was to do so successfully much later.

The protestors, in our case, did it by forcing us to stand ready continuously for days, with just the threat of outbreaks. Eventually, the Army High Command decided to force their hand by fudging the legality issue and making the unrest occur when we wanted it to. Without going into too much detail, on one occasion a Marine sergeant rolled a canister of C.S. gas down the aisle, during a service at the Reverend Paisley’s Ravenhill church.

The soldiers of the British Parachute Brigade have epitomised Kipling’s Tommy over the years. Lionised In times of national danger, and despised in others. The media, which do not always get it right, spawn much of the adulation/vilification. On one occasion, their error provided a welcome morale lift for our unit.

The Reverend Ian Paisley had organised a day of celebration when thousands of his followers would march through the streets of Belfast. It was their open intention to parade through the Catholic neighbourhoods with the obvious risk of conflagration. Early that morning we were already manning roadblocks and searching cars of those heading for the rallying points, for offensive weapons, such as steel piping, baseball bats, wrenches etc.

As the day wore on, tension naturally rose and there were small outbreaks of containable violence throughout the city. At one point, we were deployed in the Montpelier area of Belfast. Along with twelve other paras I was locked in a confrontation with sixty, seventy women, some with children in their arms, while the others threw ice cream tubs filled with human excrement at us – successfully. The frustration of having five rounds per man, fixed bayonets, members of an elite fighting force, and male, I have to confess, was palpable. We were emasculated by our orders not to retaliate, and it was overwhelming. Worse, for our battered pride, was to come, when we were ‘rescued’ by the chance arrival of four members of the RUC who had none of our compunction in ‘explaining’ to the women that they should disperse.

Tails between our legs we left and were re-assigned to ‘protect’ the Catholic canton of Madrid Street, as it appeared the parade was to reach its first point of possible conflict. We arrived and hurriedly formed a line across the road as the head of the parade came into sight. Once again we fixed bayonets and put on our ‘They shall not pass’ faces, knowing full well we were on a hiding to nothing, if not worse.

The crowd, I can’t honestly say mob because, although they were threatening and shouted abuse, they were orderly. Above us, a helicopter clattered to and fro. We learned later that it contained press personnel from the News of the World.

At the last moment, when they were virtually upon us, the head of the column veered right and took the body of the marchers through a protestant enclave running parallel to Madrid. Violence had been averted.

Subsequently, the newspaper had a fantastic headline, and aerial photograph, on an article for the British public that lauded our actions, trumpeting “Thin Red Line Backs Down Mob”.

We, on the other hand, thanked our lucky stars for the professionalism of the parade stewards Paisley had assigned that day, their ability to strictly control their marchers and especially their orders that mid-afternoon was far too early for the confrontational violence to start.

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