The British army’s longest-ever military campaign, in Northern Ireland, is over. August 1st 2007 marks a new beginning as Northern Ireland’s police force takes over full responsibility for security in the province. Pomp and circumstance have been avoided at the end of the 38-year mission which claimed the lives of 763 British soldiers. The force commander, Lieutenant General Nick Parker, said there’s no place for it. “We have had to work very carefully to overcome the IRA. There will be exactly the same challenges facing the army in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not a rugby match though. We are not going to turn around and shake hands at the end of it. There has been a huge degree of sacrifice,” said Parker. The sacrifices were on both sides of the divide after Britain, reluctantly, sent troops to Northern Ireland in 1969, to calm civil disturbances. Protestant para-military police had used violence against Catholic street marchers prompting nationalist rioting. Ironically the soldiers, there to protect the Catholics and keep the peace, became a nationalist target. On Bloody Sunday, January 30th 1972, the situation came to a head. British soldiers killed more than a dozen demonstrators during a street protest. They were defended by their commander at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford: “My troops did the job which they were trained for and which I expected. If my troops had run amok there would have been far more than 13 people killed.” The IRA, by then a formidable terrorist group, hit back. It became clear the troops would have to stay. The battle continued for more than 20 years, with no winner but plenty of losers. General Sir Mike Jackson, the retired head of the British army, said: “There was no military outcome in an old-fashioned conventional sort of way. It was a political outcome that had to be arrived at.” That outcome did eventually arrive, firstly in 1998 with the Good Friday peace agreement, reinforced two years ago when the IRA laid down its arms and the British began dismantling their watchtowers. A 5,000-strong peacetime garrison will remain in Northern Ireland but it will no longer provide a heavily-armed presence on its streets.
British army ends longest mission ever, in Northern Ireland