BELFAST – Remembering fallen comrades, veterans paraded Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the British Army’s deployment to Northern Ireland — a key moment in the “troubles.”
Hundreds of ex-service personnel attended the Northern Ireland Veterans Association event in Lisburn, southwest of Belfast.
A total of 722 soldiers died during Operation Banner, which ran from 1969 to 2007.
Since soldiers first appeared on Northern Ireland’s streets on Aug. 14, 1969, the British Army witnessed and was involved in some of the darkest hours of the troubles, the three decades of unrest in the province.
On Saturday, a religious service was held and veterans paraded through Lisburn’s center.
Among those attending was Chris Perkin, 51, from Devon in southwest England. He was a craftsman in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers corps, and served in Northern Ireland in 1988 and 1989. “I Iost friends while I was on the tour. We had two killed, 18 injured while I was here,” he said.
Coming to the service was the first time he has set foot in Northern Ireland since. “This is 30 years, so it’s quite emotional for me to come back. I was getting quite scared and worked up about it,” he said.
Troops were initially brought in to help police deal with intercommunity rioting in Londonderry and Belfast, in what was intended to be a short intervention.
When it ended, Operation Banner had become the British Army’s longest continuous deployment.
Organizers have tried to put the focus on the personnel who lost their lives during Operation Banner — not just those killed in action, but others who died through accidents, or stress-related suicides afterwards.
Northern Ireland’s former First Minister Arlene Foster, who leads the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, attended the service.
She said she was thinking about her father, who was a police reservist. “I was born in 1970 just after the start of Operation Banner and I have lived through it. My father was shot during Operation Banner, so I’ll be thinking about him today,” she said. But obviously I’ll be thinking about the wider impact the services had to face out in Northern Ireland. These people who are here today stood between us and anarchy during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and therefore we’re grateful.”
Thousands took part in Saturday’s event, including spectators, bands and veterans.
NIVA spokesman Ian Simpson said it was a somber day of remembrance but also one for veterans to come together and “enjoy ourselves as comrades.”
For many in Northern Ireland’s Protestant British community, the soldiers deployed to the province are heroes who tried to keep the peace in an era of paramilitary violence.
However, for many in the Irish Catholic community, their presence fueled the conflict.
Perkin reflected on the complex legacy of the three decades of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, which were largely ended with the 1998 Good Friday peace accords.
However, divisions still exist.
Northern Ireland’s squabbling politicians from the different communities cannot agree to form an administration in the Belfast regional assembly — one of the key planks of the peace deal.
In the meantime, Brexit poses unknown consequences for the now invisible border with the Republic of Ireland, another legacy of the Good Friday agreement.
“We’ve got a generation that’s really starting to understand the peace. But now it’s starting to bring it all back to the fore again,” said Perkin.
“The hardliners are getting back in on it again. The people are still out there sowing the seeds of mistrust.
“Peace — why not?”