This week marks 50 years since British soldiers were deployed in the north as part of ‘Operation Banner’. The troops were sent to Ireland as Derry’s Battle of the Bogside and sectarian pogroms in Belfast and elsewhere gathered pace.
The activities of the British Army in the six counties from 1969 included the Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday massacres, torture of young internees, repression of a whole section of the community and collusion with loyalist paramilitaries that involved countless murders.
Thankfully, since the late 1990s there have been positive developments for peace, including the withdrawal of thousands of British troops and the end of ‘Operation Banner’. The drastic reduction in violence has afforded young people opportunities that never existed for the previous generation and has fostered positive cross-community relations.
For long-term peace, community cohesion and safety, demilitarisation is essential. With the British Army’s ‘Operation Helvetic’ and British secret service organisations continuing to be active in the north, demilitarisation remains to be completed.
In the current climate, the British government’s rhetoric and actions have renewed widespread concern across Irish society for relations on this island and relations between Ireland and Britain. In recent times, British politicians have displayed contempt for Ireland, our history and the suffering of people. Karen Bradley, as Secretary of State for the north, recently claimed that killings by British soldiers involved in ‘Operation Banner’ were ‘not crimes’ and that British soldiers had acted in a ‘dignified and appropriate way’. Boris Johnson and others have expressed opposition to the prospect of British soldiers being prosecuted for killings such as the Bloody Sunday massacre.
With such automatic support for the British military in-grained in powerful sections of the British political class, it is reasonable to ask questions of the British government’s claim to be a neutral force where Ireland is concerned.
Furthermore, as a no-deal Brexit becomes an increasingly likely possibility, the British government has taken no constructive steps to ensure that the north of Ireland and the border region will never again be militarised. The British government’s position, given all of the lessons from recent history, is beyond reckless.