Tuesday 31 July 2007
Reflecting on Banner
Operation Banner ends today after 38 years. It's another milestone on NI's long road to Normality, and a moment we should appreciate and savour.
I come from South Donegal, an area affected by, but not devastated by the Troubles. Thankfully, we were only on the fringe of the conflict and escaped the worst of its horrors. Nevertheless, ordinary life was to some extent affected.
For a start, the community comprises a mix of Protestant and Catholic that is unique in the Republic. It's probably about 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, though in the parishes round where I come from, the figures are closer to 60% and 40%, with Catholics in the majority.
It's fair to say that sectarianism has never been a big problem in the area. Yet during the height of the Troubles, both communities felt the burden of belonging to one or other of the quarelling groups in Norhtern Ireland.
The mood would always be very sombre after an atrocity in the North, particularly if it was near the border. There was a sense of collective shame after each terrible slaughter. Everyone knew that our good neighbours were not responsible, but the sense of association was difficult to escape.
Probably the event that caused the most sustained division was the hunger strikes. IRA sympathisers raised black flags on telephone poles. And IRA slogans were seen on the roadsides. This was probably country wide - but in an area of the republic with a more complex religious landscape, we felt it more.
On other occasions a mild polarisation came to the fore. For example, in the weeks leading up to the 12th of July, when many orangemen in the area would march through the village, a slight tension would hang in the air. Friends or neighbours, normally on good terms, would feel awkward towards one another. The odd lout on the Catholic side often took to lobbing eggs or tomatoes at the marchers.
We all had relatives on the other side of the Border - in Derry, Fermanagh and West Tyrone - who had to face the conflict head on. And most of us travelled across the Border often. Crossing the border, dotted with massive military installations, was like entering the West Bank. Soldiers in combat gear, finger on the trigger, would board the bus. And there was always a huge gun pointing from the towers. Likewise, the streets of Derry or Enniskillen, the towns I knew best, were quite heavily militarised. Even the police were in heavy body armour and carried machine guns. And again, after a bombing or a shooting, the air was thick with suspicion, mistrust, and often fear.
I remember paying a visit to an Uncle in Enniskillen a few days after the horrendous bombing in 1987. The rubble of the razed building lay beside the War Memorial (Where the Clinton Centre is now). 11 people had died. The security forces had flooded the town. People were pensive and brooding. It was a public in mourning. People were quiet. Words were made redundant.
A handful of times the IRA struck right on our doorstep. They murdered an ex-UDR man who had come across the border to visit his Catholic girlfriend. The couple were sitting in a car parked outside her house one evening. An IRA unit pounced, dragged her from the vehicle, and shot the ex-soldier over 70 times before running across the field, cheering in celebration.
But in these episodes we in South Donegal saw only a glimpse of the horrors taking place in neighbouring counties. This is no place to assess the rights and wrongs of that awful period. Operation Banner was part of the whole complex and sorry story. And I for one rejoice at its passing.