13 April 2021, The Tablet

Some historical context around past events in Ardoyne

by John Coyle

Some historical context around past events in Ardoyne

Irish priest Fr Aidan Troy, who led a group of Catholic schoolgirls to school through loyalist protests in the Ardoyne area of Belfas -
George Sweeney / Alamy

An obituary of a soldier, who showed gallantry, during his service in Northern Ireland in 1973, introduced by a picture of James Bond*, an amoral, make-believe spy of the postcolonial era, was not an encouraging start to the article about a new obituary writer at The Times.

Tales of post-imperial ripping yarns, derring-do and jolly japes, lack accuracy, and significantly, context. These combine to be both insulting to the inhabitants of the Ardoyne, and besmirch the memory of Major Burt, MC.

An obituary should be accurate in social, historical and political context.  The synopsis, or the full obituary, does not provide or measure up to those precepts.

The historical context is that the people who resided in Ardoyne have been subject to the most egregious and atrocious attacks for a 45-year period, bookended by a UVF bombing of Holy Family infant girls school in 1966, and that school’s pupils being targeted by loyalists in 2001. Heartrending scenes of courageous parents, being led by Fr Aidan Troy, a Passionist, stewarding the bewildered infant children to school, are indicative of what people in this part of Belfast endured.

As to [then] Captain Burt’s deployment in 1973, important background is necessitated. In August 1971, 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, were involved in killings of 11 people in Ballymurphy, one a priest Fr Hugh Mullen, two miles from Ardoyne.  Fr Mullen was administering the last sacraments to a stricken man. On 30th January 1972, 1 Para unlawfully killed 14 people on Bloody Sunday.

During that period, internment without trial was been used in Northern Ireland. Individuals were interned without any lawful process by way of an open public trial. This crass mistake as was recognised by Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling.

This brief synopsis of the deployment of the Parachute Regiment, with Captain Burt as one of its officers, is important. The risible idea that the captain would enter illegal drinking dens schmoozing habitues, who were acutely aware of which regiment he was drawn from, is fatuous. People in Catholic/nationalist areas were acutely sensitive of the reputations of the various regiments deployed. They had varying reputations for harshness, or brutality.

Enoch Powell MP remarked that he was against the deployment of the British army in Northern Ireland. When probed, Powell responded that he was against it because “an army is a killing machine”. This applies to any army, as all armies are organised around training and equipping soldiers to kill, in a disciplined, thorough way.

This general critique is the more acute when applied to formations such as paratroopers or marines who go into battle expecting to take numerous casualties operating on the fringes, behind enemy lines. To deploy such trips any peacekeeping and policing role was reckless and absurd, with the consequences that Powell could foresee happening.

The second daring-do of jogging around the Ardoyne past people leaving Mass at Holy Cross Church was timed to cause maximum offence.  This egregious display was photographed and sent to men who were not convicted of any offence, but subject only to untested allegation, to demonstrate that 3 Para controlled their “patch”, was bizarre.

These stratagems were borrowed from Brigadier Kitson’s manuals. These are discredited, albeit used in other postcolonial conflicts, but have been subject to critique, such as from Professor James Hughes’ [LSE] incisive article in History Ireland.

3 Para, in a later deployment in 1976, were involved in the killing of a young 12-year-old girl, Majella O’Hare, on her way to confession. This provoked an investigation by Fathers Murray and Faul, widely recognised for their investigative work and opposition to brutality or violence, whatever its source. Majella’s grieving brother was interviewed last year on RTÉ. The grief of nearly 45 years has not abated.

In 1981, the former MP, Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey, was subject to a horrific attempted loyalist assassination attempt, with  collusion from the army alleged. Ms. Devlin was shot nine times in front of her children. Members of 3 Para came into her home. They remained there for 30 minutes, waiting for her and her husband, to die. By inadvertence, a patrol from another regiment came upon the scene. A soldier of that regiment intervened. His prompt humanitarian intervention saved the lives of the McAliskeys. This is a woeful critique of 3 Para. While Major Burt is not known to have featured in these incidents, the historical context of the deployment of 3 Para during the Troubles is vital.

These memories are ever present in Ireland. The inquiry into Bloody Sunday, and apology by David Cameron, plus controversy over prosecutions of named soldiers is still highly charged. In 2019, an inquest was held into the Ballymurphy shootings conducted by a High Court judge. That is yet to conclude.

The insignia and colours of the Parachute Regiment are draped across loyalist areas, evidencing support for soldier ‘F’, who is being prosecuted presently for killings on Bloody Sunday. Some 3 miles from Derry, where Bloody Sunday took place, the maroon flag of the Parachute Regiment displayed on a lamppost, under which Catholics/nationalists must pass, on the main road from Belfast.  It is placed there to cause maximum offence.

These are matters of context, current, and historical. It is profoundly disappointing that The Tablet has ignored these. An article extolling a late convert to the Church, who won a Military Cross, on the errant basis of “Catholic does well” is  deeply insulting. It dis-honours Major Burt.

John Coyle is a barrister, practicing in Belfast. He  has been  instructed in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the  inquest into the Omagh bombing of 15th August 1998, as well as litigation surrounding both.

(*Note: the picture of Daniel Craig, who featured in a film of a novel by Evelyn Waugh, referred to above, has been changed out of respect for the concerns raised.)

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