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The Troubles cast a shadow over Brexit
December 2018 / January 2019

The “Tavern in the Town” pub, Birmingham, after the 1974 bombings: 21 were killed, but the real bombers are still at large (© Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)

“It’s the Irish embuggerment factor,” drawled a plummy-voiced British army officer during a Belfast riot I was covering in 1975. His soldiers had been attacked with bottles and stones, and things had escalated rapidly. Their response was a sustained volley of plastic bullets, an about-turn from the low profile the army had been adopting to try to keep a faltering IRA ceasefire alive. Ridiculously posh, the officer looked hopelessly out of place against the raw brawn of street-fighting republicans, boys and men massing on the Falls Road. Yet in that phrase — “the Irish embuggerment factor” — he’d captured an eternal truth about Northern Ireland: like whack-a-mole, eventually something always pops up to scupper the best of intentions.

Rarely in the field of human conflict has so much energy been expended in placating so few as in the Brexit negotiations over the backstop preventing a hard Irish border. It seems it’s OK for the Democratic Unionist Party to demand different reproductive and marriage rights from the rest of the UK (to name but two) while also demanding perfect regulatory alignment over cattle feed. Far from embodying the Union, the DUP erodes its Britishness.

Brexit, though, is just the latest example of embuggerment by an Irish minority buggering up a plan intended to benefit the majority. For 30 years, Northern Ireland was riven by one of the most prolonged insurgencies in modern European history. Some 20 years on from that conflict’s conclusion, whack-a-mole keeps muddling the search for a solution to dealing with its legacy: what to do about the 1,188 killings under reinvestigation and how to promote reconciliation. Arguments over legacy have so poisoned the political atmosphere that the return to devolved government now seems almost impossible. Precious little attention has been given to this legacy deadlock on this side of the Irish Sea. Until now, that is. Stirring MPs and the press from their slumber has been not the spectre of a new dark age cast over the province but the prospect of three elderly ex-soldiers facing prosecution over killings from the 1970s.

The much-lauded 1998 Good Friday Agreement made no provision for the investigation or prosecution of former soldiers, focusing instead on the early release of convicted terrorists.

Two ex-paratroopers are due to stand trial in Belfast next September for the murder of an IRA gunman in Belfast in 1972 as he evaded arrest. Notorious though 25-year-old “Staff Captain” Joe McCann was, he was unarmed when he was shot repeatedly, judging by the ten cartridge cases close by his body. By the time Soldiers A and C appear in the dock, they’ll be 70 and 68.

Then there’s 77-year-old great-grandfather Dennis Hutchings, who suffers from heart and kidney problems. He is due to stand trial in March for the attempted murder in 1974 of a mentally retarded  27-year-old, John Cunningham, who was unarmed and shot in the back as he ran from Hutchings’s patrol because, said his GP, he was “afraid of the army”. The doctor told Cunningham’s inquest that his patient required special care and he had previously found soldiers pushing him into an armoured car because he had been hiding in the bushes. The charge against Hutchings is attempted murder — which he denies — because both he and another soldier, now dead, opened fire and the Crown can’t be sure whose bullets killed Cunningham.
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December 20th, 2018
8:12 PM
We can rely on Gareth Peirce and her indefatigable Fifth Column to put right everything that is wrong, no matter what the cost.

December 6th, 2018
11:12 PM
In reply to nobby, who states 'you cannot compare a soldier who made a mistake in the heat of the moment......' my father was shot dead in cold blood by members of the MRF, a unit of the British Army who drove around Belfast in plain clothes in unmarked cars 'executing' civilians. Eventually this unit were disbanded as they were deemed to be 'out of control'. Obviously we expect these soldiers to be tried for the murder of our Dad. And why not? Wouldn't you want to see justice done if you were in our position?

John Ware
December 6th, 2018
7:12 PM
Nobby: The (regular) army killed 160 civilians, and 121 republican terrorists (Table 18, p 1561, Lost Lives). Most of those civilians were shot in the early and most violent phase of the conflict, and many may well have died in cross fire (including, I suspect, some of the 11 shot in Ballymurphy at the start of internment in August 1971). I trust you noticed my comment that ".....whatever crimes soldiers may have committed, people will struggle to see the remotest moral equivalence between the British Army and the IRA." John Ware

December 6th, 2018
10:12 AM
on the whole I agree with the solution to the legacy of unsolved killings put forward in this article.However there are a few points I would make.Firstly the author gives the impression that a large majority of the British Armys victims were civilians.In fact the army killed 149 terrorists and 152 civilians,roughly 50-50.Secondly you cannot compare a soldier who makes a mistake in the heat of the moment with a terrorist who carries out a pre planned cold bloded murder.Look at the Kingsmill massacre where the IRA stopped a minibus carrying workers home from a building site,seperated the protestants from the Catholic,whose name they knew,and then shot the Protestants.Nobody has ever been prosecuted for that either.I would be interested to know what proportion of Terrorist murders were successfully prosecuted,I suspect it is not as high as this article gives the impression of.Finally how can it be just to prosecute an old soldier who made one terrible mistake 40 years ago when the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin Mcguiness were/are allowed to pose as respectable elder statesmen.

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