29 April 2021

There should be no amnesty, but Ulster’s forgotten veterans deserve proper recognition


The story of the dog catcher and the Provos tells us something important and largely missing from the tale of the honourable discharge of veterans minister Johnny Mercer from Government service last week. 

Mercer resigned and/or was sacked, take your pick, stating that he could no longer reconcile the Government’s pledge to protect former servicemen and women from legal persecution for operations overseas with a refusal to extend the same cover to veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict.

As it happens, I disagree with Mercer on this. Counter-insurgency in the fields of South Armagh is not the same as fighting a war in Helmand. We will return to this later. But back to the dog catcher and what he can tell us about the hidden plight facing thousands of Northern Ireland’s hidden veterans. 

A former neighbour of mine, whose details you can verify but who would not thank me for the publicity, served as a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment. This was a ‘home battalion’ of the British Army raised in the Province in 1970 to support the police in counter-terrorism duties. A significant portion of the soldiers were part timers – the postie, the shop worker, the farmer, the civil servant – all donning a camouflage uniform after work to go out and protect their local community.

My neighbour, who was also the council’s dog warden, was one of these. The IRA murdered 190 UDR personnel during the Troubles, the majority off duty and defenceless. Provo terrorists lured him to an isolated spot on the border on the pretext of a report about a stray dog. They waited for him in ambush with automatic rifles. Fortunately, my neighbour carried his personal protection weapon with him, knowing all too well how his civilian job made him an easy target for terrorists. He had been targeted for death before and survived. In this instance, despite being severely injured when his council vehicle came under attack, he had the extraordinary presence of mind to fire back, killing one of his assailants, injuring another and driving him and two other terrorists over the border to safety and hospital. 

My neighbour recovered from his physical injuries and maintained a stoic attitude that is characteristic of so many whose sacrifice went largely unnoticed for the duration of their service. These people don’t make a fuss. Many of his colleagues, whose front line was their front door, endured years of psychological trauma. Unlike their comrades in Great Britain, there was no safe haven to fly back to. The threat to these soldiers was 24/7. They patrolled their own fields and streets and many of them were cut down where they lived in circumstances of appalling and intimate cruelty. Imagine for a moment, the toll caused by that sort of hyper vigilance, day in, day out with no release, no truly safe haven and precious little decompression.

The impact has now been revealed in a research report commissioned by Queens University Belfast that compared rates of psychological injury in veterans living in Northern Ireland. The 1600 respondents included those who served in only in the Province in the UDR and its successor, the Royal Irish Regiment and those who had served in the rest of the British Army or in theatres overseas. When these two groups were compared, the survey found, “a significantly higher proportion of home-service veterans were found to be likely to be suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and depression disorders”. Home service UDR veterans reported a significantly higher number of barriers to accessing support than their ‘general service counterparts’.

It is not surprising to see men like my neighbour serving with distinction, sacrificing much, suffering in silence and retiring to an uneasy ‘peacetime’ status, living in a now fallow murderscape where every turn of the road conceals a past horror. The vast majority of men like my heroic neighbour served with honour. A few did not and I’m afraid I do not accept that there can be anything less than full accountability for agents of the state who committed crimes in uniform.

The same must be true of paramilitary terrorists who caused the bulk of the deaths in the Troubles. A legacy process that disproportionately targets ex-servicemen and women who held the line against anarchy in conditions we can only guess at, will poison any chance of reconciliation.

But the bigger picture is not about due legal process. It’s about the UK government properly resourcing mental health services for home service veterans, taking account of the fear and stigma many of them still suffer without proper recognition or treatment. It is about telling the story of quiet, unassuming heroes like my former neighbour and thousands like him, whose legacy is twisted by relentless republican propaganda to cast them all as on the same moral plane as the terrorists who targeted them for workplace execution and called it a ‘war’. 

It has become almost normalised for the UDR to be entirely conflated with Loyalist terror – a scurrilous propaganda victory for Sinn Fein and fellow travellers who cannot countenance the humanising of their Irish neighbours in uniform, because it would undermine the moral vacuity of the IRA killers they still venerate. Bad apples and bruised apples are not the same. 

We rightly expect people who wore a uniform to operate with superior values than the faceless cowards who tried to murder them. That is why there can be no amnesty for those who broke the law in uniform, however uncomfortable this reality becomes in the face of appeasement of terrorists. In return, the forgotten veterans of the Ulster Defence Regiment who live on in their communities deserve proper recognition and support from their Government to enjoy the peace they gave so much to realise. Perhaps this will be Mr Mercer’s legacy.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.