Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Critical Mass - The Ulster Defence Regiment

Ulster Defence Regiment, Ulster Troubles, Northern Ireland

One Ulster Television advertisement from the very early Seventies sticks in my mind every bit as much as George Best's plug for Cookstown family sausages or the recommendation to drink Nambarrie Tea. It centred around a call for membership of the Ulster Defence Regiment - the locally recruited branch of the British Army that replaced the Ulster Special Constabulary in 1970 and would be merged with the Royal Irish Rangers as the Royal Irish Regiment in 1992 after over two controversial decades of active military service.

If I can remember correctly the advertisement showed a random motorist being stopped by a UDR patrol and asked for identifiation and access to the vehicle for searching. The understandably peeved driver squirms with annoyance at this ridiculous delay - while muttering such asides as "Could you not be out catching some terrorists for a change?" etc - before a stentorian voice from the rear proclaims "Sarge, we've found a weapon".

The resolution of the Ulster Troubles by way of the Good Friday Agreement was of course flawed in many respects. In the same way the acceptance of the broad framework of peace by the Northern Irish and Irish public would be of much more historical note than the ingenuity of the political construct itself. However it does seem that certain matters still stubbornly fall outside the remit of post-conflict re-analysis and this none moreso than the role of the Ulster Defence Regiment.

This week a memorial statue to the regiment was erected in Lisburn and, alike many people who were direct victims of terrorist violence in Ulster, I also am inclined to agree that their positive role within the limitation of Troubles violence is extremely overlooked.

The Irish writer Kevin Myers described the Ulster Troubles as "a seventeenth-century religious conflict bottled in a late twentieth-century industrial decline". I personally feel that the outbreak of conflict was gauged upon positive social change and negative economic retraction alike interfacing with appalling political misjudgements. And that in a society where religion was not the overarching cause of conflict but essentially a mark of ethnic identity. The resultant mess was the equivalent of throwing a bucket of hot goose fat over a burning chip pan.

The State therefore would cease to exist for the Catholic community in 1969 and for the Protestant community in turn three years later. Within that vaccuum paramilitarism would flourish across the religious divide and many ordinary citizens feel compelled to volunteer for part-time military and policing duties. Unparallelled political reappraisals took place during this period too from Connor Cruise O'Brien's clinical dissection of Irish nationalism to William Craig's violent political rhetoric as the head of the Ulster Vanguard movement.

The reason why the tensions and divisions of Seventies Ulster did not terminate in open civil war and repartition was, in my opinion, due in largest measure to the blessed fact that the small geographical size of Northern Ireland allowed the country to be literally swamped with security forces.

Those people who joined the Ulster Defence Regiment - overwhelmingly from the Protestant community because of Republican paramilitary intimidation of potential Catholic recruits - put themselves at incredible risk during their off-duty civilian life. The deaths of all the 260 serving or former UDR soldiers who were murdered during the conflict are related in David McKittrick's Lost Lives and make for grim reading. Around 500 other members were seriously injured in terrorist attacks.

As the main focus of Republican criticism of British security policy in Ulster, the UDR did indeed have an image problem as related to the activities of a minority of its membership. However the sheer scale of individuals who served in the regiment during its existence make blanket condemnation ludicrous in consideration of other civic, religious, political, military, paramilitary and financial organisations in modern British and Irish history which could provide similar qualitative examples of deeply immoral behaviour but easily surpass that in terms of numbers involved.

During the unveiling of the statue, showing a male and female member on duty at a checkpoint, the Trust chairman noted: "It was unfortunate that there were members who did bad things and we're not trying to hide that....but what we would say is that there's almost 50,000 people who didn't do bad things - who did good things, who were ordinary decent people who wanted to do the best they could for their country."

In turn a poster on a Belfast newspaper website this week stressed how in hindsight, even as a liberal critic of the regiment at the time and as somebody fiercely against paramilitarism, that the UDR's role in peacekeeping has been criminally undervalued. He would also note in turn how the choreography of the conflict's endgame mirrored radical changes in paramilitary, policing and military structures whereas the earlier phasing out of the UDR prior to 1994 has left its reputation in some form of historical limbo.

I have always understood that the Irish peace process is inclusive of all parties to conflict and hence must be similarly cogniscent of the raw dynamics which underpinned service in the UDR by the vast majority of its law abiding membership. Within a demographic as politically aware, astute and sophisticated as Nationalist Ireland - and with the British monarch having recently having paid homage to Republican icons such as James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and Liam Lynch - then reconsideration of the UDR's role is surely not a bridge too far in terms of final closure upon the Ulster Troubles.

As for most British people on the mainland, the UDR is nothing more than a forgotten part of a forgotten conflict that warranted little engagement at the time provided it remained on the other side of the murky and radioactive Irish Sea. However that still does not negate the fact that the British people will certainly not see the like of the men and women of the Ulster Defence Regiment ever again. That as a body forged from citizen volunteers and in terms of pure loyalty, bravery and selflessness.

They represent in no small measure another closing chapter in the history of the United Kingdom.

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