Will this war never end?: Jonathan Bardon cannot recall a day in Northern Ireland in the past 25 years when he did not see a soldier

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The Independent Online
TO THE music of fifes, accordions, pipes and drums, 15,000 Apprentice Boys had marched through Derry formost of the day without incident. Then, as they passed the edge of the Bogside, loyalist supporters threw pennies down on the Catholics below. Catholic youths flung back marbles, nails and stones and in moments an intense battle raged. These events, on Tuesday, 12 August 1969, led directly to the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland.

Resentments accumulated over centuries gushed to the surface. Youths threw down a rain of petrol bombs and the advance of police and Protestants into the Bogside was halted - one dairy alone recorded the loss of 43,000 milk bottles. Responding to a request from the Unionist government in Stormont, James Callaghan, then Home Secretary, announced on 14 August that troops had been sent to Derry 'to restore law and order'. 'Troops will be withdrawn as soon as this is accomplished,' he said. 'This is a limited operation.'

That night, along the Falls- Shankill divide in Belfast, Protestants and Catholics fought while police armoured cars sprayed heavy-calibre bullets from Browning machine guns. By dawn five people were dead; 12 factories had been destroyed and 100 houses had been wrecked. Gerry Fitt, MP for West Belfast, on a telephone from a bookmaker's shop in the midst of the devastation, was one of many beseeching Callaghan to send in the troops. 'Gerry,' Callaghan responded, 'I can get the Army in all right but it will be the devil of a job to get it out again.' Late that afternoon, 15 August, soldiers arrived on the streets of Belfast.

James Callaghan, we know, was right the second time. Today perhaps half the population of Northern Ireland has no memory of a time when the Army was not on active service here. Come to think of it, I cannot recall a single day since August 1969 - except for very short periods spent outside the region - when I did not see a soldier. As I write in the small hours there is an almost unsettling quiet: the helicopters have gone to bed for the night. The troops are still here because 'The Troubles', the most continuous conflict in Europe this century, keep on inflicting violent, untimely deaths. Will this 'Long War' never end?

Contrary to the popular view, Ireland's history is not awash with blood. There were long periods in the past when wars so assiduously recorded by chroniclers were little more than cattle raids by high-spirited nobles, tinged with a little sporadic mayhem. The hundred years between 1692 and 1792 were not interrupted by a single rebellion. Robert Emmet's rising of 1803 was over in an evening; Ireland's sole contribution to the 1848 'Year of Revolutions' was justifiably termed the 'Battle of Widow McCormack's Cabbage Patch'; and the Fenian Rebellion of 1867 was seen off by a force of 14 constables.

Many on the other side of the Irish Sea will casually assert that theIrish would soon sort the present conflict out among themselves if only the troops were brought home. They certainly would. I have no doubt that had the Army not been rushed in, August 1969 would have witnessed slaughter in Northern Ireland on a Bosnian scale. There were appalling errors of judgement, of course. A heavy price was paid because successive British governments had allowed themselves since 1922 to ignore Northern Ireland's affairs. Crossman recorded in 1969 that Harold Wilson had 'this crazy desire to go over there and take things over . . . though we know nothing at all about it'.

In truth, the Army would have found it much easier if Westminster had taken things over in 1969. As a result of the failure promptly to abolish Stormont, Catholics who had originally welcomed soldiers with cups of tea came to see them as agents of a hated regime. To Catholic eyes the Lower Falls curfew of July 1970, internment in August 1971 and heavy-handed action against nationalist protest (notoriously on Bloody Sunday) have remained stains on the Army's name long after the imposition of direct rule in March 1972.

It would not be hard to fill pages with lists of mistakes made by Westminster since 1972 but there is another way of looking at the past quarter century: British governments, aided by the Army, have in that period carried out a remarkably successful holding operation. At the time of writing (will it be more when I hear the morning news?) there have been 3,167 violent deaths here since August 1969. That is a dreadful toll and each death is an individual tragedy, but a glance at conflicts elsewhere suggests that tens or even hundreds of thousands could have been slaughtered had we been left to 'sort things out among ourselves'.

Is it really like other conflicts? Make no mistake about it: the violence in Northern Ireland is as near as makes no difference an ethnic conflict. The fact that there is no racial difference of any consequence between both sides, or that many of the bitterest sectarian participants are devoid of religious feeling, does not upset my argument. Many here would counter that it is a political struggle, and it is that, too. Name an ethnic war which is not political, where at least one participant does not aspire to join with a neighbouring state.

Westminster has learnt much since 1969. The British Army still makes mistakes but its approach is infinitely more sophisticated than it was when soldiers arrived here with the dust of Aden and Cyprus on their tunics. Britain is probably in as good a position as any power in Europe to advise others on how to handle intercommunal tension and ethnic conflict.

Yet the violence continues and the troops remain. Latelythere have been suggestions, fuelled in part by revelations of American involvement, that the IRA will call a ceasefire. Few people I know think it will happen. Sinn Fein has effectively rejected the Downing Street declaration, already denounced by Ian Paisley. Dramatic changes of attitude would have to take place before any proposal devised by London and Dublin together would win approval.

The very length of the conflict helps to ensure its continuation. If the Army has become more sophisticated in handling sectarian conflict, the IRA must now be the most experienced guerrilla fighters in Europe. After a quarter of a century of killing and bombing, many first involved in their teens are today middle-aged veterans. Sharing danger and sometimes imprisonment, still certain their cause is just, respected by younger volunteers and retaining the support of many in their community, these men and women have known no other life. No doubt some on both sides of the religious divide have not only become inured to violence but have have acquired an addiction to acts of terror.

If IRA leaders wereto agree to a ceasefire, their view of the future would have to be bleak indeed. Those who fought in Ireland's War of Independence and in the Civil War that followed could make careers in politics and the Irish Free State's public services. Here in Northern Ireland, there are not many jobs waiting for demobbed gunmen in their urban ghettos and rural enclaves, and Sinn Fein is never likely to make much of an impression on the ballot box.

'The Troubles will go on because too many people are making money out of it all.' It is an observation frequently heard. Certainly there is a huge black economy sustained by the violence, and for a time it appeared that the loyalist paramilitaries were actually concentrating on extortion and para-criminal activities. The racketeering continues, but the loyalist killers now have never seemed better organised or more determined.

In the past the republican movement has been almost as fissiparous as non-conformist Protestantism in Ulster. The overwhelming concern of Gerry Adams now is to hold his movement together. A ceasefire not overwhelmingly supported would spawn a whole shoal of breakaway militant groups intent on fighting on; he would be sidelined.

Adams wants the British government to become a persuader of unionists to accept ultimate Irish unity, but this is the position of the impossibilist. The Downing Street declaration contains whole phrases submitted by the Ulster Unionist Party and yet a great many Protestants were left convinced that Britain was about to abandon them. An IRA ceasefire would not do much to mollify them: republican militants would merely be concealing their pikes in the thatch once more. Some are preparing for the doomsday of British withdrawal - and the security forces are worried by the high level of loyalist paramilitary recruitment.

Nowhere seems safe in all this. I am a keen member of the fly-fishing club at Loughinisland, a beautiful and serene place in mid-Down. I could have been in the village bar after a day on the lough that Saturday in June when loyalist gunmen butchered people there watching Ireland in the World Cup.

It is as bleak as it is appalling: unless the British government loses the will to carry on, the Army could be here for another quarter century.

Jonathan Bardon is author of 'A History of Ulster' (Blackstaff, pounds 14.95).

(Photograph omitted)