IRA Ceasefire: Frontline veterans hope for peace but fear backlash: Former servicemen sceptical over the chances of a permanent end to violence

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SOLDIERS who have seen action in Northern Ireland, serving and retired, were sceptical about the possibility of an IRA ceasefire working yesterday.

Since the present troubles started on 14 August 1969, 648 British soldiers have been killed, including 197 from the Ulster Defence Regiment, now incorporated, as a recognition of its role in the security operation, into the Royal Irish Regiment. Another 5,749 have been wounded.

The worst day for the British military was that of the two Warrenpoint attacks in August 1979, which left 18 dead, including Lieutenant Colonel David Blair of the Queen's Own Highlanders, the most senior officer killed by IRA action. It came hours after the bomb that killed Lord Mountbatten.

There are 19,000 military personnel in Northern Ireland, overwhelmingly from the Army. The RAF contributes 1,100, and the Royal Navy 250. They cost the British taxpayer pounds 477m a year above what they would have cost if deployed elsewhere.

Ray Hazan, 49, was a captain in the Royal Anglian Regiment in October 1973. He was blinded by an IRA bomb intended for a general. The bomb also took away his right arm and impaired his hearing. Now he is the fund-raiser at St Dunstan's, which helps blinded service people.

Another officer, 2nd Lieutenant Lyn Dobbie of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (now the Royal Logistic Corps), was killed.

Capt Hazan said: 'A parcel which had been sent from the UK was delivered to the Essex electrical factory in Bligh's Lane, Londonderry - just outside the Creggan. It contained a timing device, explosives. There was a general visiting the factory that day and it was given to one of his retinue. It was delivered to us - as the nearest military unit. I asked him where he got it from. My maths wasn't very good and two and two didn't equal four. It went off and everything suddenly went black. I was 28, had been married three years and was about to be a father in about five months' time.

'Six weeks later I came to St Dunstan's and that was really when life started again. I was surrounded by men who'd been blind 30 years.'

Like many former servicemen, Capt Hazan was sceptical about the possibility of a ceasefire, and in two minds about whether to accept it.

'It's difficult to know what is proposed. Myself, I feel that what I lost in the way of sight in a way went for nothing. One wasn't defending a country or anything. Anything for peace - that is the first reaction. If it stops the killing.

'On the other hand, if it sends the wrong message - that if you continue with violence you will eventually win - then one's against it. The humanitarian - that comes first.

'Anything to achieve an end to the maiming. I'm so torn between giving in to terrorism and wanting to stop the killing and maiming. There's no straight answer.'

Like many soldiers, he was sceptical about the possibility of a ceasefire holding. 'I think it is possible, but if provocation by the UVF and the Unionist side gets too much they'll start again. They'll try it for a while but it won't be permanent.'

He did not believe the IRA would ever achieve its aim of uniting Ireland unless the majority in the North wanted it. 'I don't think we will pull out,' he said.

Fred Whitton, 49, from Dundee, served three times in Ireland between 1969, when the troubles started, and 1975, reaching the rank of bombardier in 12th Regiment, Royal Artillery. He is now a commissionaire in London.

'It would be nice,' he said. 'But you'll get a Protestant backlash - that's what you've got to watch out for.'

When the British troops arrived, they were seen as liberators by the Catholic community. 'We were on patrol in Andersonstown and a young kiddie came out and threw some holy water on us. About two weeks later he got a jam sandwich with crushed glass in it,' Mr Whitton recalled. 'It'd be nice to see it come to an end, speaking for the soldiers. There's too many been killed.'

The Army and the RUC refused to speculate on the outcome of a ceasefire. 'It's hypothetical and intensely political,' an RUC spokesman said.

Privately, military sources said the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries would have to demonstrate a genuine intent to end the violence for at least three months before any change in Army deployments. Then, some units might withdraw into barracks but they would remain for a long period to ensure that the ceasefire was still holding.

There are six battalions or regiments - Army units about 700 strong - on six- month emergency tours in support of the RUC, six resident battalions on two-year tours, and six battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment.

After a prolonged ceasefire, the six emergency tour battalions could be withdrawn, reducing the total military presence by about 4,000.

(Photograph omitted)