Fresh from completing my Sandhurst training, Northern Ireland was to be my first posting as a platoon commander with the Royal Green Jackets. I remember something inherently bizarre about my first foot patrol on the streets of Londonderry.
What on earth was I doing here? I was after all dressed for war; carrying a loaded weapon, wearing a flack jacket and helmet – yet still on UK soil. And I was following the footsteps of countless other British soldiers whose presence, for two decades now, was required to keep the peace.
I remember thinking, is this really how the people of Northern Ireland want to live? With check points everywhere, soldiers patrolling through every field and daily incidents being reported from every corner of the province.
Three distinct events quickly put the scale of the problem put into perspective. The first involved an attempt to buy a stick of gum from a corner shop in a catholic area whilst out on patrol. Had the dear old lady been seen to serve me, she explained, she would get a brick through her window. The second event involved talking to a group of six year olds on a poor estate and asking what they wanted to do with their lives.
Every one of them wanted to join the IRA as this would give them some status, prestige and money, which otherwise they were unlikely to achieve. My final moment of enlightenment took place in a bar whilst passing through Los Angeles during my first month’s leave. A hat was passed around and people dropped cash in, sometimes quite large sums. When I asked ‘What was the collection for?’ The reply came ‘It’s for the cause’. ‘What cause is that? I inquired. ‘Why – our Irish friends in Northern Ireland of course.’
So with the people frightened to challenge the status quo, a plentiful supply of new IRA recruits and money continually pouring to fund the campaign, the bleak reality of why no solution had been found became clear.
But a workable solution of course has eventually been found. The people of Northern Ireland have collectively chosen a new direction and turned their backs on dissident violence.
The phenomenal scale of demonstrations that took place across Northern Ireland on the 11th March against the recent killings proves that the ordinary people (regardless of religion) will not be intimidated. So long as this remains the case there is every reason to believe that the clocks will not be turned back and the ‘the cause’ for Northern Ireland is peace.