Northern Ireland: Veterans mark 50th anniversary of 'Troubles' deployment


Hundreds of British ex-military personnel on Saturday took part in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the British army’s deployment to Northern Ireland.

A parade, which included former members of the elite airborne Parachute Regiment and the Royal Engineers, took place in the city of Lisburn, southwest of Belfast.

Organizers said the focus of the parade was to remember the 722 soldiers who lost their lives during what became the British military’s longest ever deployment.

Northern Ireland’s former first minister Arlene Foster and widows of the bereaved were among those in attendance.

Read more: Past haunts Northern Ireland 20 years after the ‘troubles’

Security stepped up

Saturday’s march was held under tight security amid continuing bitterness over the British army’s role in the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland, three decades of sectarian unrest between Catholics and Protestants.

Soldiers were first deployed to the British territory in August 1969 under Operation Banner. Initially dispatched for a short time to maintain order following the break-out of riots in the cities of Londonderry, Newry and Belfast, the army’s numbers quickly swelled. 

By 2007 when the last troops were pulled out, some 300,000 British soldiers had served in the province.

A parade to mark 50 years since British troops entered Northern Ireland

Their role, to assert the authority of the British government, was initially welcomed by both sides. But the army quickly became embroiled in some of the darkest hours of the Troubles, and their presence fueled the rise of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Read more: Northern Ireland’s New IRA: What is it?

The IRA, which sought the reunification of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the south, waged a guerilla campaign against British rule. IRA terrorists staged attacks in Ulster, the British mainland, and even against British army installations in the then West Germany.

Favoritism set back peace hopes

The British army was widely seen as biased towards Catholics, and clashes between soldiers and Catholic residents were commonplace.

The British army and local police were eventually blamed for about 10% of all the 3,532 deaths during the Troubles, which ended with the signing of 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Read more: Ireland votes to ease divorce laws, back united Ireland

However, fierce debate continues over whether British soldiers should be prosecuted for alleged crimes committed during the conflict.

One significant incident, known as Bloody Sunday, saw British soldiers open fire on a Catholic civil rights march in Londonderry, killing or wounding 29 unarmed civilians.

After a long campaign for justice by the families, prosecutors earlier this year announced that one soldier will stand trial for murder in September over the massacre.

The decision infuriated supporters of Britain’s military intervention, who insist republican paramilitaries were responsible for the overwhelming majority of killings during the Troubles.

Some British MPs have called for an amnesty for soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, in the same way 500 republican and loyalist paramilitaries were released from prison early when the conflict ended.

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