Special report: Operation Banner - 50 years since British Army campaign started in N Ireland

Special report: Operation Banner - 50 years since British Army campaign started in N Ireland

August 14, 2019, marks 50 years since the start of British Army operation in Northern Ireland.

It was the beginning of the lengthiest continuous campaign in British military history.

Operation Banner lasted from August 1969 to July 2007 and cost 722 soldiers’ lives following paramilitary attacks.

Northern Ireland’s Government at Stormont had urged the UK to deploy troops after sustained violence wore out police officers.

Soldiers on the streets, at checkpoints or in vehicles on patrol in support of the police provided a ready target for a nascent Provisional IRA pre-eminent amongst the republican factions.

People move to and from the Bogside area of Derry in 1969 after a night of rioting in which at least five people were shot dead (PA)
People move to and from the Bogside area of Derry in 1969 after a night of rioting in which at least five people were shot dead (PA)

In some parts like South Armagh it became so dangerous that soldiers had to confine much of their travel to helicopter.

Two have died since violence largely ended and the Army was withdrawn from operations in Northern Ireland.

Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were shot dead by dissident republicans outside their Massereene base in Co Antrim as they prepared to deploy to Afghanistan.

A Conservative MP and former British Army officer said a republican pub bombing in Co Derry was probably the worst thing to happen in his life.

The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) detonated a bomb at the Droppin’ Well pub in Ballykelly on December 6, 1982 – killing 17 people, including 11 soldiers and six civilians.

Former Colonel Bob Stewart was incident commander at the scene.

Former Colonel Bob Stewart was incident commander at the scene in Ballykelly (Philip Toscano/PA)
Former Colonel Bob Stewart was incident commander at the scene in Ballykelly (Philip Toscano/PA)

Arriving shortly after the explosion at around 11pm, he said: “I held a girl, who I think was a Catholic, as she died. She had lost both legs and an arm – she was 18.”

Describing the aftermath and taking the bodies away in the wake of the blast, Mr Stewart, 70, said some of them “were just like joints of meat”.

Members of the army have been under investigation for high-profile cases of alleged wrongful killing – Bloody Sunday in Derry is the best-known – leading to calls from some MPs for them to be granted immunity.

On the other side stand the victims of state killings seeking justice for the deaths of loved ones.

A mother-of-eight who had served tea and sandwiches for British soldiers at her family home was shot dead by the Army some 12 months later.

The Ballymurphy families are seeking justice for loved ones (David Young/PA)
The Ballymurphy families are seeking justice for loved ones (David Young/PA)

Joan Connolly welcomed soldiers into her home where she lived with her husband and children in a predominately Catholic area in Belfast.

She made them tea and food and soldiers gifted her with a present when the first Regiment stationed in Ballymurphy left that part of west Belfast.

Her daughter, Briege Voyle, has fond memories of the Army being in her home when they first arrived in Northern Ireland.

In August 1971, Joan was one of 10 people shot dead by soldiers in what later became known as the Ballymurphy massacre.

Ms Voyle said: “The Army just seemed to turn. One minute they were our friends, the next minute they weren’t.

Troops of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with armoured cars in Belfast in 1973 (PA)
Troops of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with armoured cars in Belfast in 1973 (PA)

“They just saw everyone as the enemy. They thought every Catholic was an IRA person.”

Martyn McCready said the arrival of British soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland changed the atmosphere “for the better”.

His father John was shot dead by the IRA as he walked home in north Belfast in 1976.

He said: “They were sent here as a peace force to look after both sides.”

Some of the key dates during the Northern Ireland Troubles

Special report: Operation Banner - 50 years since British Army campaign started in N Ireland

Since soldiers first appeared on Northern Ireland’s streets on August 14 1969, the Army witnessed and was involved in some of the darkest hours of the Troubles.

A total of 722 soldiers died during Operation Banner, which ran from 1969 to 2007.

The Army was also accused of murdering civilians during those decades of bloodshed.

To some, troops were peacekeepers who helped in the battle to maintain law and order as the region teetered on the brink of civil war; to others they were an occupying force who used violence indiscriminately against nationalists and republicans, with rogue members even working in cahoots with loyalist paramilitaries.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the start of Operation Banner, these are some of the key dates in those years of conflict:

Police battle with rioters in the Bogside area of Derry (PA)
Police battle with rioters in the Bogside area of Derry (PA)

– 1969: In August, troops were brought in after police were faced with inter-community rioting in Derry and west Belfast. The loyalist marching season sparked violence in Derry in July but the worst rioting occurred in August following the annual Apprentice Boys march in the city.

After three days of confrontation, known as the Battle of the Bogside, the UK government agreed that British troops could be deployed. A broad swathe of Catholic opinion, including the church and the old Nationalist party accepted the presence of the Army. They saw it as necessary for restoration of law and order and defence of Catholic areas in Derry.

– 1970: The first serious clashes involved troops in riots in Ballymurphy, west Belfast. General Officer Commanding Ian Freeland warned soldiers would shoot to kill at anyone holding petrol bombs or guns. In July, a military curfew on the Falls Road sparked a gun battle with the Official IRA which marked an end to the Army’s “honeymoon” period. Army actions caused six deaths.

– 1971: In February, the IRA shot and killed the first soldier and Major James Chichester Clark resigned as Northern Ireland prime minister after Edward Heath refused his request for more troops. A total of 44 soldiers and five locally-recruited Ulster Defence Regiment members died. The Army killed 45.

Ten civilians were killed in three days of shooting in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast as paratroopers moved in to republican strongholds after the introduction of the controversial state policy of internment without trial.

The victims of Bloody Sunday (Bloody Sunday Trust)
The victims of Bloody Sunday (Bloody Sunday Trust)

– 1972: In January, paratroopers shot 13 demonstrators dead during a march for civil rights in Derry. The event became known as Bloody Sunday, galvanised IRA recruitment, and was condemned around the world. The Irish government lodged protests and rioters burned the British Embassy in Dublin.

The Official IRA revenge bombing of the Aldershot headquarters of the Parachute Regiment, which carried out the Derry shootings, killed several civilians.

In July, following the Bloody Friday slaughter in Belfast city centre from more than 20 IRA bombs, the Army moved into Derry’s Bogside no-go area and more IRA bombings followed. Operation Motorman, an Army strategy to end republican no-go areas, was launched and there were 21,000 troops in the province.

– 1974: In May, troops were called upon to distribute petrol after the hard-line Ulster Workers’ Council, an organisation heavily influenced by paramilitaries, called a stoppage of loyalists working at power stations in protest at powersharing with nationalists. The Stormont coalition collapsed and ministers were accused of not using the Army soon enough by those opposed to the direct action.

The bullet riddled minibus near Whitecross in South Armagh where 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead by IRA terrorists (PA)
The bullet riddled minibus near Whitecross in South Armagh where 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead by IRA terrorists (PA)

– 1976: The UK government announced the deployment of extra troops after 10 Protestant workers were killed by the IRA at Kingsmill, Co Armagh. In May, a private at Fort George, Co Derry, shot and killed a 20-year-old Catholic while he was sitting on a bus.

– 1979: In August, an IRA landmine and shooting ambush at Narrow Water, Warrenpoint, Co Down, killed 18 soldiers. An 800lb bomb detonated in a trailer at the side of the road near Carlingford Lough, the boundary with the Republic.

IRA men watching from the southern shoreline opened fire, the Army returned rounds and an un-involved English holidaymaker, Michael Hudson, died in the crossfire. The attack came the same day as another in which Lord Mountbatten died in a boat off the coast of Co Sligo, targeted by the IRA.

– 1982: A republican splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army, killed 17 people at the Droppin Well pub, Ballykelly, Co Derry. The dead included 11 soldiers based in the garrison town. An Army officer who rushed to the scene spoke of seeing bodies stacked like dominoes on top of each other.

– 1987: The SAS ambushed and killed eight IRA men as they attempted to blow up a part-time police station at Loughgall, Co Armagh. The IRA raked the barracks with gunfire and used a digger to carry a bomb which they intended to destroy the site. The SAS fired at least 600 shots in response and all the dead republicans were shot in the head.

– 1988: The SAS killed three IRA members in Gibraltar in March and were criticised because those they shot were unarmed. The funeral of the victims was attacked in Milltown cemetery in west Belfast by loyalist gunman Michael Stone, who killed three more. When two soldiers drove into the funeral of one of his victims, they were attacked by the crowd, beaten and shot dead.

– 1989: Senior Metropolitan police commander John Stevens headed up a probe into collusion between members of the security forces in Northern Ireland and loyalists following concerns about the shooting dead of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane and other sectarian murders.

– 1996: In October, two IRA bombs exploded inside the Army’s headquarters in Lisburn, Co Down, killing one soldier.

Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, the last British soldier to die before the Good Friday peace agreement (Family handout/PA)
Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, the last British soldier to die before the Good Friday peace agreement (Family handout/PA)

– 1997: Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, 23, was killed while manning a checkpoint at Bessbrook, south Armagh, in February. He was the last soldier to die in the conflict, shot by IRA sniper Bernard McGinn.

– 2003: In April, John Stevens submitted his report finding that members of the Army and police colluded with the Ulster Defence Association. The Army’s Force Research Unit was linked to agent handling.

– 2005: In August, former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain announced a two-year demilitarisation programme following the IRA’s decision to stand down. The Royal Irish Regiment’s Northern Ireland-based units were to be disbanded and thousands of members to be made redundant.

Troop levels were to fall to 5,000, leaving a peacetime garrison available for service around the world. Later that year, the first watchtower, Cloghogue – close to the border, was demolished.

– 2007: In July, the Army’s last south Armagh stronghold, at Bessbrook, was closed and Army chiefs confirmed Operation Banner would end on July 31.

– 2009: Two sappers in the 38 Engineer Regiment – Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar – were murdered by dissident republican gunman from the Real IRA outside Massereene Army barracks in Co Antrim. The soldiers, who were hours from deploying to Afghanistan, were targeted when they stepped outside the gates of the base to collect a pizza delivery.

Mother who served soldiers tea and sandwiches shot dead by Army months later

Joan Connolly
Joan Connolly

The daughter of a Catholic woman who welcomed the arrival of British soldiers in Northern Ireland said she was shot dead by the Army months after serving them tea and sandwiches at her family home.

Joan Connolly, a mother-of-eight, lived with her husband and children in a predominately Catholic area in west Belfast when the Troubles started.

Shocked by the violence that was erupting on the streets of Belfast, Joan saw the deployment of British troops as a peace-keeping exercise.

She welcomed the soldiers into her home, chatting to them as she made tea and coffee.

Some of the soldiers gifted her with a present when the first Regiment stationed in Ballymurphy left Belfast.

Her daughter, Briege Voyle, has fond memories of the Army being in her home as the Troubles flared across Northern Ireland.

“After the Troubles started, the Army came into our estate (Ballymurphy) and we thought this was great, that they were our friends,” she said.

“My mummy and our neighbour made them tea and sandwiches. They used to come every night and sit and have a yarn with us and we thought nothing of it, that they were here to protect us and it was great fun.

“They were all the best of friends and they were very nice and friendly.

“My older sister actually ended up marrying a solider.

“They bought my mother a lovely present and they bought my neighbour a bunch of flowers to thank them for looking after them while they were there.

“I remember my neighbour was raging because she thought the present mummy got was better than her flowers.

“They were friendly and we had a laugh and a joke and that went on for months.

My mummy used to say that the men were always somebody’s son, but then all of a sudden it turned very nasty and things changed.

“People were afraid. The Army got worse and worse.”

But in August 1971, Joan was one 10 people shot dead by soldiers in what later became known as the Ballymurphy massacre.

It happened during an Army operation in which paramilitary suspects were detained without trial, known as internment.

Briege was 14 years old when her mother was shot dead by the Army.

She said: “The night my mummy was shot she went looking for me and my sister to get us into the house. But the Amy fired the tear gas and I did a runner. It wasn’t until the next day when I heard she was shot dead.

“The Army just seemed to turn. One minute they were our friends, the next minute they weren’t. They just saw everyone as the enemy. They thought every Catholic was an IRA person.”

John Teggart’s father Daniel, was among those killed in Ballymurphy.

Gerard Teggart, Briege Voyle, Janet Donnelly and John Teggart, who have each had a member of their family shot dead in a disputed series of shootings in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast in August 1971 during Operation Banner.
Gerard Teggart, Briege Voyle, Janet Donnelly and John Teggart, who have each had a member of their family shot dead in a disputed series of shootings in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast in August 1971 during Operation Banner.

His first memory of the British Army was soldiers firing tear gas into his community when he was nine-years-old.

“Before that happened soldiers were accepted and greeted in the area, but I have no memories of any good deeds that they did for us through the eyes of a child,” he added.

“All I have is memories of brutality through my teenage years, especially the Parachute Regiment, who brutalised myself and my friends.

“We were no older than 13 or 14 at the time.”

Janet Donnelly said she also remembers the Army using tear gas in built-up areas.

Her father Joseph Murphy, 42, who had served in the British Army, was also shot dead by soldiers in Belfast.

“We didn’t know what tear gas was, only that it burned our eyes,” Janet said.

“It was painful and I remember my mummy stuck a tissue covered with vinegar in my face and told to keep it there. All I could taste and smell was vinegar and had burning eyes.

“That’s something that became the norm for us when we were walking down the street.

“The Army would drive past us and fire plastic bullets in our direction.

“We were stopped, searched and harassed by the Army. The women had to patrol the streets at night to stop young men from getting a beating by the British Army.

It wasn’t until after the cease fire that we realised none of it was normal.

Tory MP recalls horror of Northern Ireland pub bombing

Special report: Operation Banner - 50 years since British Army campaign started in N Ireland

A Conservative MP and former British Army officer has relived the horror of a Northern Ireland bombing, describing the atrocity as “probably the worst thing to happen” in his life.

Paramilitary group the Irish National Liberation Army was responsible for one of the largest death tolls of the Troubles in 1982.

They detonated a bomb at the Droppin’ Well pub in Ballykelly, Co Derry, on December 6 – killing 17 people, including 11 soldiers and six civilians.

Former Colonel Bob Stewart, who was the incident commander at the scene, said his troops from A Company the 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment were “blown to bits”.

Losing six of his men that night, the member for Beckenham, south east London, told PA how the bar was somewhere young people and off duty soldiers often went to.

Arriving at the scene shortly after the explosion at around 11pm, he said: “I held a girl, who I think was a Catholic, as she died. She had lost both legs and an arm – she was 18.”

Describing the aftermath and dealing with the bodies in the wake of the blast, Mr Stewart, 70, said some of them “were just like joints of meat”.

He was speaking ahead of the anniversary of Operation Banner – with August 14 marking the date British troops deployed onto the streets of Northern Ireland some five decades ago.

The military campaign, which ran until July 2007, was in response to growing sectarian unrest.

Between the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Mr Stewart undertook seven tours of Northern Ireland – asked if there is a moment which has stuck with him the most, he said it was the Ballykelly bombing.

“I do not have post traumatic stress disorder, but it has certainly had a traumatic effect on me in so far as it is probably the worst thing that has happened to me in my life,” he added.

Noting how during day-to-day life you were conscious and slightly on edge, he said that for the vast majority of the time being in Northern Ireland was like living anywhere else in the UK – “except that it could turn nasty, very quickly”.

With an evident affection for Northern Ireland, Mr Stewart said the country is a wonderful place which is full of charming, decent people on both sides.

“It is just a very small percentage of total bastards,” he added.

Like most soldiers who served on Op Banner you have a considerable respect and liking for the vast majority of people there.

Mr Stewart also highlighted his respect for the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment, who he said were “brave beyond” and faced very real threats daily.

“I remember, I think it was in Maghera, that we heard a huge bang and a bomb had gone off, and together with a few soldiers we rushed to where it was – and it was a car,” he said.

“In the front of the car was a father and a daughter – the daughter was about 10 or 11. The father was an off-duty soldier of the Ulster Defence Regiment.

“They looked perfectly normal, they were lying back in the seat except they didn’t have a bottom half of their body. These are the people that are heroes.”

He said that when he and his soldiers saw the carnage they were sick and cried, with Mr Stewart “horrified” by what he had seen.

But, he conceded that it was a different time and that there were things they did then that “would be totally unacceptable now”.

Recalling one instance, he said: “When I was an intelligence officer we would decide we’d search a street.

We’d get people – the whole street up at 5.30 in the morning – ask them to gather in the sitting room and then rip their house apart looking for things.

“Then we would try and put it back together, and ask them to sign a bit of paper to say we hadn’t done any damage. I can’t believe we did that now, but we did.”

But, he stressed how they were always “particularly careful” if they opened fire to avoid shooting near women and children.

“In my tours, I never saw anyone that went out there with a grudge or wanting to kill someone. Quite the reverse, the decision to open fire is the most difficult one you face,” he added.

Army’s presence in Northern Ireland was ‘reassuring’

A man whose father was shot dead by the IRA as he walked home described the presence of the British Army on the streets of Northern Ireland as “reassuring”.

The special operation, known as Operation Banner, lasted for almost 40 years and involved over 300,000 British army personnel.

Troops were deployed in Northern Ireland as the Troubles flared across the region.

Martyn McCready, whose father John was shot dead on his mother’s birthday in north Belfast in 1976, was among those who welcomed troops.

He said the arrival of British soldiers changed the atmosphere “for the better”, adding that he felt “reassured” by their presence.

He said: “The feeling was great because everybody wanted to see the troops in.

The Army changed the atmosphere here for the better. They were sent here as a peace force to look after both sides.

“But one side thought they were looking after the other more.

“I never had any bother with the Army, if you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide.

“I felt reassured by them being here. I just felt sorry for the Army because they were put here and they didn’t know the streets they were going to and how people would react to them.

“They just wanted to help people.

“The soldiers left their homes in England and thought they were coming over to keep the peace and the next thing they were being shot at and blown up and murdered.”

Martyn, who lives in Dundonald, said he always “admired” the courage of the soldiers, describing them as people who were “just like us”.

He added: “They wanted to get back to their families and unfortunately they were piggy in the middle.

The soldiers did a fantastic job with very limited time and equipment. When people were putting up barriers around Belfast, they cleared streets and made sure the city was still running.

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