In the best British Army tradition
I have always had a soft spot for men in uniform, specifically British Army uniform, which I still associate with my father who served in the Far East and elsewhere in the Second World War.
He would never speak about it, never showed us his medals, but it was an unspoken assumption in our house that he had seen unspeakable things in the jungle conflict that brought the war to a close.
When I was a kid in the 1960s, he stayed on with the Emergency Reserve (a kind of up-market Territorial Army) and used to invite us, when we were very lucky, to “manoeuvres” in Surrey.
He was in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and specialised in fixing broken-down tanks. He would sit in his tent in the British countryside with huge pages spread out on a table showing the innards of Centurions and other bits of heavy-duty equipment.
He was in full dress uniform when he married Mum and various black-and-white pictures of them emerging from church, looking impossibly glamorous and in love, adorned our fireplace at home.
Needless to say, after 25 years working over here, I now have a somewhat different approach to members of the British Army, but there’s still the childhood residual respect and loyalty towards what it could mean, in an ideal world.
When I read Colonel Tim Collins’ address to his troops before battle in Iraq, I was moved. Here was a soldier, sent out to kill or be killed, who respected his enemy, whatever his views on his political masters.
I had concerns, obviously, about his role as a member of the Royal Irish Regiment, with its ugly antecedents in the Ulster Defence Regiment, but I was unaware that he had ever served on the ground in the North.
Until I read his autobiography, Rules of Engagement, recently published.
As some of you will know, last year I wrote a book myself, about the Holy Cross episode in north Belfast. I like to think that I know quite a lot now about the people involved on both sides. Holy Cross is part of me.
What Tim Collins had to say about it left me gasping. It was so untrue, so utterly untrue that I felt, at first, a huge disgust and anger that others, who know no better, will read it and believe it.
Then I felt sorrow and a kind of resignation. If Tim Collins is today’s “thinking soldier”, if he is the best the British Army has to offer, then God help the British Army.
He speaks of how “pressure” on Protestant residents in Glenbryn had been “ramped up” by the IRA. This is nonsense. If any paramilitary group was involved in “ramping up” pressure, it was the UDA. Even the police, on the record, admit that.
Of the initial incident that sparked off the Holy Cross dispute, his facts are also way off target. He speaks of how a car “swept” the ladder from under a loyalist putting up flags and that a “gang” had leapt out and attacked the poor loyalist with a screwdriver.
Not even the loyalist concerned, Jim McClean, claims that he was knocked off the ladder. More garbage.
He says the “community activists” on the Ardoyne side were “Provisional IRA almost to a man”. Leaving aside the crass sexism that remark betrays, what of those activists involved who had no political or paramilitary connections whatsoever, including members of the Right to Education Group?
It must be a source of some amusement, or more likely annoyance, for parents like Elaine Burns and Lynda Bowes to be called “Provisional IRA to a man”. But no, to a man like Collins, anyone in Ardoyne who lifts their head above the parapet is the enemy, the IRA.
If he had asked any local politician, or anyone who knows Ardoyne at all, he would have quickly found out that roughly a third of its residents vote SDLP.
Collins describes, tellingly, how “surly crowds” watched him and his troops, some “wearing Celtic shirts over their massive beer bellies” while they chewed gum and spat.
On the other side, he describes men with cropped hair wearing Rangers shirts, heavily tattooed, their faces “reddened by drink” with gold knuckle-dusters. Both sides are disgusting, except the children, of course, who will no doubt grow up to be disgusting.
This is classic imperialist stuff. We, the dominant class, are noble, educated, even good-looking. The untermensch are stupid, ugly, fat, sinister. Without exception.
Collins sees things that do not exist. He describes paving stones on Ardoyne Road painted green, white and gold. News to me, and the residents. He even spells Glenbryn wrong as “Glynbryn”.
No doubt there were disgusting people on the Ardoyne Road that year, but not all of them were. I would love him to have met Patricia Monaghan, a parent and cross-community worker.
In an unforgettable interview for Holy Cross she told of how she agonised over deciding whether to bring her daughter to school the usual way, or the so-called “alternative route”.
She and her husband had lost two daughters in infancy. Now they had a healthy wee girl. Should they risk the challenge of the loyalist gauntlet?
She prayed to God at the graveside of her two dead babies for three days, asking herself what was the right thing to do? “For me, it was a moral decision. It wasn’t anything to do with politics, Catholics, Protestants, your ground or my ground,” she said.
Patricia Monaghan’s self-questioning, her sense of dignity, morality, of the importance of free will, contrasts with the swaggering, self-importance of a man who appears to respect the rights of Iraqi citizens so much more than those of his fellow countrymen.
My Dad wouldn’t have liked him.
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