A story of Crossmaglen, war, propaganda and the need for peace.
Often the bad things that happen in wars have their beginning in a combination of inflicted circumstances and other more mundane happenings. This story, for example, depicts a backfiring van and a lovable little dog, but also the partition of a country and a village alienated from the soldiers occupying it. It could have been set in Iraq, Afghanistan or a fort on the Hindu Kush in the 1840s. Instead, it all happened in the UK in the latter half of the last century, in a village in Northern Ireland called Crossmaglen.
Throughout the world, the history of partition being imposed on countries has had few successes. If we think of Palestine, Vietnam and Korea we can see that partition is often imposed by powerful nations on weaker ones and, rather than solving issues, often creates further and deeper difficulties. Often inflicted due to expediency and short-term interests, partition can end up creating intense long-term problems. In the worst-case scenarios, borders inflicted by partition can become open wounds, causing pain and suffering to all those who have to live with them. This became the case in an Ireland cut into two parts, with a unionist – mainly Protestant – majority in the north and a nationalist – mainly Catholic – majority in the south.
During ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, at border posts travellers were met by British troops with guns at the ready, overlooked by other soldiers manning machine guns from slits in concrete block-houses. These fortifications, reminiscent of the First World War, were covered in corrugated iron, barbed wire and draped with camouflage and anti-mortar nets. Enormous sums of taxpayer’s money were spent by Westminster trying to make the border between the parts of Ireland ‘terrorist proof’ – including the construction of a series of high-tech watch-towers along the high ground overlooking the frontier.
The border quickly became one of the most militarised in Europe, equal in many ways to the one then dividing Germany. But both parts of Ireland – the North, as a part of the UK, and the South – were members of the European Union. So we all lived in a Europe with increasing moves towards unity and the subsequent lessening of borders between nations, while the artificially created border between the two parts of Ireland stood out as a stark exception.
The Partition of Ireland
During the implementation of Partition in Ireland in the 1920s, the border was drawn around six of the original nine counties of Ulster.
It was opposed not only by Irish Nationalists, but also by Sir Edward Carson, the Ulster Unionist leader. Carson, a Dublin barrister who became famous after destroying the reputation of Oscar Wilde in an infamous trial, was strongly against the Irish Home Rule bill, put forward by the Liberal Government at Westminster. But he also opposed partition, viewing it as a failed measure. When it was being imposed, Carson resigned as the leader of the Ulster Unionists in 1921. He attacked the ‘Tory intrigues’ that had led him on the course that would partition Ireland, and stated: ‘what a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into Power.’
Partition was ordered by Westminster and the border, concocted by British civil servants, was not based on considerations of history, geography – or emerged from consultations with the local population. Instead, it enclosed an area in which there would be a permanent majority of unionists, while still being large enough to be economically viable. Ireland’s most industrialised areas were thus retained within the United Kingdom, whilst many border towns were isolated from their natural hinterland.
Some farms – and even buildings – were divided: ‘The meandering 280-mile boundary confirmed in 1925 cross-cut 1,400 agricultural holdings, approximately 180 roads and 20 railway lines. It bisected villages and, in some cases, private houses. It is this boundary which still divides the border region today…’ [Whither the Irish Border? Sovereignty, Democracy and Economic Integration in Ireland, by Liam O’Dowd, Centre for Research and Documentation 1994].
One of the reasons that had caused Carson to oppose Home Rule, was because he feared that Protestants would be discriminated against in what he saw as a Catholic Ireland – freed from British rule. But after Northern Ireland was created by partition, he warned the Ulster Unionist leaders repeatedly that they must not alienate the Catholics, as this would make the new state unstable. He stated: ‘We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.’ Unfortunately, Carson’s warnings were in vain and Catholics in Northern Ireland were often to be refused work on religious grounds. Carson later he said: ‘I fought to keep Ulster part of the United Kingdom, but Stormont is turning her into a second-class Dominion.’
Far from resolving the problems between nationalists and unionists, partition ensured that the issues that divided them were now concentrated explosively at, and within, the boundaries of the new entity. Inside Northern Ireland, over a third of the population identified with the aspiration for a united Ireland. They considered themselves part of the native Irish majority in Ireland as a whole, and resented partition. Trapped inside an artificially created Northern Ireland, nationalists felt apprehensive and isolated and no effort was made to win their loyalty, as Carson had suggested. Instead, they were subjected to discrimination, coercion and a lack of civil rights – which added further to their alienation.
In 2007, the Irish author and journalist, Danny Morrison, wrote a review of a new book about the South Armagh area, which through interviews had outlined the local people’s view of the conflict:
‘Two days before the introduction of internment on 9th August 1971 the British army shot dead the driver of a van which was passing Springfield Road barracks in West Belfast, dragged the passenger from the vehicle and brought him into the barracks where he received a vicious beating.
In a statement the British army said that two shots had been fired at them from the vehicle, whereas, in fact, it had backfired. The British army were never to apologise and at the inquest two months later unidentified soldiers were still insisting that they had seen what looked like a weapon protruding from the open driver’s window, heard two shots and saw smoke. That killing and their lies, repeated hundreds more times after controversial killings, represent the nationalist experience of law, order and justice.
The dead man was 28-year-old Harry Thornton from Crossmaglen, a quiet village in South Armagh.
Although South Armagh had not been untouched by the various conflicts that have peppered Irish history, it had no great tradition of physical-force republicanism. … Subsequently [after partition] finding itself cut off from its natural hinterland of Louth and Monaghan and stranded in a sectarian northern statelet … If few had heard of Crossmaglen before 7th August 1971, they certainly were to become familiar thereafter for its association with the most professional of the IRA’s battalions and its rural guerrilla warfare.
… South Armagh is an area fifteen miles by ten miles with a population of 23,000 people. It is believed that there are over 3,000 British soldiers and RUC personnel assigned to the area. A former Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees, dubbed it “Bandit Country” in 1975, and the British media (and some Irish) enthusiastically embraced the demonisation of the people.
A book published just this week, “The Chosen Fews” by Irish journalist Darach MacDonald (Mercier Press), at last does justice to the warm and proud people of this underdeveloped scenic area and explodes the media myths that have been perpetuated. In a series of interviews with people, many of whose voices have not been heard before, MacDonald paints a picture of a vibrant community, which desperately wants peace so that it can reach its full potential.
… This timely book is a tribute to a people who yearn for normality. Unfortunately, the Sandhurst boys have never grasped the equation that military presence and political vacuum equals armed resistance and alienation.’
British soldiers became the direct upholders of Northern Ireland from August 1969, after soldiers of the First Battalion of the Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment of Yorkshire had been sent out onto the Streets of Derry to ‘aid the civil power.’ Some of these troops came from the local Ebrington barracks, but most had arrived from the troopship Sir Tristram.
Afterwards, many places along the border became too dangerous for the RUC to patrol, and soldiers became the front line. In 1973, an Irish journalist described a visit to Crossmaglen, a village close to the border created by Westminster’s partition:
‘This is a town of about 1,400 inhabitants, where a soldier wouldn’t get a drink in any of the twelve pubs, a cup of water from any house, or a light for a cigarette from people in the street. There are no stones pelted at them – just the sound of silence.
There is only one Protestant business in the town and only three non-Catholic families in the immediate area. There has been no sectarian troubles here; and the only riots took place on the night Harry Thornton [a local man] was killed by soldiers in Belfast [his van backfired as it passed an army fort and he was shot by a sentry] and on the night of internment.
High over the courthouse, on the town square, the Tricolour unfurls in a gentle breeze. Army helicopters hover over the flagpole, at times, and lasso the emblem from its position. Next morning another Tricolour is put in its place. The forces have dropped some acid substance on the flag on occasions. It disintegrates into ribbons. Next morning, another Tricolour is hoisted. And so on.
No soldiers patrolled the streets of the town while we were there. The people said they rarely came out from the heavily fortified police barracks. One woman in a shop said that all troop movements were by helicopter now. “It’s like Heathrow airport here,” she said. “The copters fly in and out from five in the morning till about midnight – non stop.” The RUC barracks was turned over to the military in 1920. There has not been a policeman on patrol in the town since.’ [Sunday Press, 17th June 1973, by Michael Hand].
Seven years later, in army jargon Crossmaglen had become ‘XMG’ and was the most dangerous posting in Northern Ireland for British soldiers. By now all movements of men and equipment to the base was by helicopter, because of the high attrition rate of army vehicles to mines and ambushes. The heliport at Bessbrook, that supplied ‘XMG’ and other forts along the border, was now one of the most heavily used in Western Europe. A journalist from the New Society magazine described visiting the base with an Army unit:
‘Flying low over the hills of South Armagh, the helicopter sheers upwards to avoid some electricity pylons and then drops like a stone the other side. The squaddie I’m lurching back and forth next to is from Liverpool. He must have been about eight when the first troops arrived on the streets of Derry in August 1969. Now he’s on his way back to base in Crossmaglen – XMG as they call it in the acronym-crazy army.
You run off the helipad at Crossmaglen. Helicopters are flying in and out 24 hours a day, but they never stop longer than the twenty seconds it takes for one cargo of soldiers to run off and another lot to run on. They have to fly the rubbish out by helicopter here … From up in the watch-tower you can see some of the bullet holes in the 20 foot corrugated iron which rings this tiny base. “That’s where everyone gets shot,” Lieutenant Sexton says, pointing to the main square of Crossmaglen, 150 yards down the street. The Saturday before, Private John Bateman of the King’s Own Border Regiment was shot dead there, by a sniper hidden in the graveyard of St Patrick’s church. Bateman was 18 from Cumbria, one of the 100 infantrymen here. [New Society, 24th April 1980, by Ian Walker].
Crossmaglen has a large square in the centre of which stands a statue, like the war monuments in many British towns and cities. Local people raised the money to purchase the memorial, which depicts a figure rising phoenix-like from flames. Underneath is written in Irish and English: ‘For those who have suffered for Irish Freedom.’
Rats the Dog Soldier
In Crossmaglen the Westminster politicians could not claim that the Army was keeping the peace between rival factions, since the population was overwhelmingly nationalist. In a scene reminiscent of past days of Empire, the soldiers in their fort kept the Union Jack flying over hostile territory. The colonial role of British troops was starkly obvious, but the British mass media was unable, or unwilling, to explain the contradictions inherent in this situation. Thus, some concentrated, almost exclusively, on ‘Rats – the dog soldier’ – one of the most bizarre ‘heroes’ that the conflict had thrown up:
‘The army’s biggest PR coup of the seventies was undoubtedly Rats, described by one pro-military author as “the dog star” of BBC television’s Nationwide. Given the famous British predilection for animals, Rats was an army propagandist’s dream. A Crossmaglen stray who had been adopted by the military, Rats first starred on Nationwide in 1979 … “Rats,” Nationwide reporter Glyn Worsnip solemnly explained, “as number D7/777 is the longest serving member of the British army in South Armagh.”
… A ceremony to honour Rats was arranged for Nationwide’s cameras. As bagpipes wailed and Rats howled along with them, an NCO presented him with a medal with the words, “we are gathered here this afternoon to pay homage and tribute to this small mighty dog, our one and only friend in the Crossmaglen area.” An officer gave the game away to the perspicacious by saying that among the soldiers “you’ll see a certain amount of friendship towards this animal, when there isn’t that sort of friendship towards the local inhabitants of the town”.’ [Ireland: The Propaganda War, by Liz Curtis, Pluto Press 1984].
Soon, other articles about Rats began to appear in the media, as stories about the dog became an easy way to introduce a pro-British angle. As Liz Curtis indicated:
‘The Rats story ran and ran. The Daily Express featured him as “DOG OF WAR,” running gallantly alongside a foot patrol, with a text that began, “EYES BRIGHT! Here comes action dog with a regulation shine to his nose after breakfasting in the officers’ mess”. The Express told its readers that Rats, “twice wounded in action,” was soon to be awarded a gold medal by the canine charity Pro Dogs. The award ceremony provided an excuse for another appearance on Nationwide.
That the publicity had struck a chord in the British psyche was demonstrated at Christmas 1979, when thousands of letters addressed to the dog, along with food parcels and toys, arrived at the Crossmaglen barracks: so many that a special department had to be set up to deal with them … October 1981 saw the publication of a biography, illustrated with pictures provided by Express Newspapers, titled Rats: The Story of a Dog Soldier.’ [Ireland: The Propaganda War, by Liz Curtis, Pluto Press 1984]
The stories, like those of Rats the Dog Soldier and many others, were clearly used to mystify and distract from the reality of the situation on the ground. And they sought to gain popular support, back in Britain, for the role the soldiers were playing. So, while the media wallowed in the Rats fantasy, the local people and the British troops had to face the reality. In South Armagh, 124 soldiers and 58 members of the RUC were killed during ‘the Troubles,’ many while serving at the Crossmaglen base. As tours of duty come around again and again, many squaddies become cynical and alienated about the war – that couldn’t even be called a war – and where ‘Rats the dog soldier’ became a hero, but dead squaddies’ names were quickly forgotten.
For soldiers a tour of duty in Crossmaglen, or any of the bases along the border area, was regarded as the toughest and most dangerous – as veteran Dave Roche explained:
‘Almost all transport to camp is made by helicopter, morale is a big problem there. Crossmaglen was the most miserable and depressing part of my life. Overcrowded quarters, damp, suffocating, artificial bunker light, living underground in steel armoured concrete holes. The smell of wet clothes and cooking. Never any let up; 24 hour border patrol, four hours rest, four hour village patrol, eight hours rest, and up again for patrol. My mind and body were wrecked, I would shake uncontrollably, and everyone drinks.
The stress is incredible, some mates were wounded, two were killed. South Armagh is bomb and booby-trap country. The thought of walking past a car and getting blasted to bits was terrifying, worse than bullets in Belfast or Derry. There were days when you only had one thing on your mind – “Not today! Shoot me next week, or next month, but not today. Please give me these last three days before I can leave for home …”
Some people go mad. Some pretend to go mad just to get out. One time we were landing by helicopter, it was freezing with snow on the ground. We saw one of our men running naked around the field. We thought it was a crazy bet of some sort. We waved and he waved back, “All right lads,” he shouted. But later he took his clothes and a gun and made for the village. We were sent out to search for him, we had orders to shoot him if he caused any trouble. Luckily, he was found sleeping in an empty house. Another soldier started shooting sheep while out on patrol. He was locked up. We all thought he was just pretending to be crazy, but they weren’t taking any risks.
I never felt like I was going mad, but we all felt exhausted. After 14 hours in a damp wet ditch; and nobody knows how much longer it is going to take, you have to bite your lips to prevent yourself from crying. You knew tomorrow and the next day would be just the same. It was a tunnel with no light, but you knew you had to go through it. Moaning did not help. I was not sitting at home on my settee, I was here in this mess and nothing or nobody could change that. That’s the way I spoke to myself, it was no solution, but the thoughts did help. Of course, I also thought of the day I would be sitting in the pub with a pint. The only thing the army offers you is a Padre, who would pass through once a month and say “Everything all right boys?” Any tour in Northern Ireland is mentally and physically exhausting. That’s why they don’t exceed 4 to 5 months and then they leave you for a couple of years.’ [Humo, 10th Aug. and 17th Aug. 1989, ex-soldier Dave Roche interviewed by Jan Hertoghs].
Towards Peace and Reconciliation
While some British journalists ignored the contradictions that could clearly be seen on the ground and wrote instead about Rats and other distractions, there were some British media people who were responsible and who honestly reported what they felt and saw. For instance, in 1972, the Sunday Times Insight Team wrote the following about Northern Ireland:
‘The border was itself the first and biggest gerrymander: the six counties it enclosed, the new province of Ulster, had no point or meaning except as the largest area which the Protestant tribe could hold against the Catholic. Protestant supremacy was the only reason why the State existed. As such, the State was an immoral concept. It therefore had to be maintained from the first by immoral means – the fiddling of internal boundaries too, the steady pressure on Catholics to emigrate by making it hard for them to live and work, the police bullying … And in the end the Army on the streets, internment, “deep interrogation.” For the British, the tragedy was that – through historical obligation, and then through sloth and lack of perception – they became involved in the defence of a morally indefensible entity. For the Northern Ireland Catholics, the tragedy was that the British defence prolonged that entity’s existence a few more [sic], painful years. Nothing was more certain than that Catholics would continue to struggle against the State. They knew the evil in which it had been born and reared. And since evil begets evil, they were prepared to see their own struggle carried on by evil means.’ [Ulster, by The Sunday Times Insight Team, a Penguin Special 1972].
During the conflict, successive opinion polls in Britain showed a majority of the people favoured the withdrawal of their troops. So what the Insight Team wrote was actually fairly representative of the views many people in Britain held about Northern Ireland and the use of their soldiers there. Clearly talks could and should have taken place between all those involved and a solution worked out. Sadly, Westminster ignored this and three decades of violence ensued, before discussions eventually began and a Peace Process later implemented. The agreement reached, which for many years Westminster had claimed to be impossible, suggests that many of the conflicts around the world can be halted through discussions and compromise.
The Irish Peace Process is fragile and needs to be worked on constantly to ensure its continuation. Unfortunately, there have been many times lately when Westminster’s on-going commitment to the Peace Process is open to question. Veterans For Peace believes that it is crucial that peace prevails and that this is also what the overwhelming majority of the people in both Ireland and Britain want. Earlier this year, 2015, a number of Northern Ireland veterans from VFP visited Belfast, Derry and Crossmaglen and met people from the communities where they had once served – including former IRA members: [http://veteransforpeace.org.uk/2015/road-to-reconciliation-ex-ira-members-and-british-soldiers-come-face-to-face/]
All the participants in these meetings want the peace to prevail and believe that reconciliation can play a crucial part in ensuring this. So VFP views this work as a valuable part of our goal of ensuring that talking / discussion / compromise replaces war / conflict / fighting as the way to solve problems across the world.
Aly Renwick served in the British Army and is a member of VFP UK