Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

40 years of the British Army in Northern Ireland

Feature from latest Sunday Business Post

August 15, 1969. Even those with the most cursory of interests in Northern Irish history will recognise the date of the British Army’s first deployment in Belfast. But for almost 40 years no photographic record of the soldiers’ arrival on the city’s streets existed, until an octogenarian with a photo box wandered into a gallery in the northern capital recently.

bombayoneGerry Collins, now 86, was the first photographer on the scene after a weekend of sustained and orchestrated attacks by loyalist mobs left most of Bombay Street, off the Falls road in west Belfast, ablaze. A keen lens man, he had brought his camera with him as he went to check on his elderly aunt in the area that fateful Sunday morning.

The pictures he took of wide-eyed, young soldiers cautiously walking down burned-out, rubble-strewn streets could have made Collins famous, but instead they lay filed away in his attic as the Troubles raged. Only a chance encounter with the social documentary-style photographs of Frankie Quinn, proprietor of the Red Barn Galley in Belfast city centre, persuaded the long-retired photographer to dust off his old Ilford prints.

‘Gerry came into the gallery,’ recalled Quinn, whose own work on the peace walls that divide Belfast won many plaudits. ‘He said he knew about my work, and that he had photographs that had never been seen before. I thought nothing of it until he came back a few days later, and brought with him these amazing photographs.’

Families loading belongings onto milk trucks, a priest from nearby Clonard Monastery addressing an anxious crowd, a man and boy surveying the rubble of what was once their house – the photos, collected in an exhibition entitled ‘Taken From The Ashes’, reveal the painful, intimate stories behind the Bombay Street riots.

bombaytwo‘This is the only record of that morning.’ Quinn explained, standing beside the old street sign for Bombay Street mounted alongside Collins’ stunning black and white images on the gallery’s whitewashed walls. ‘When he arrived on the street there were no other photographers there. He says he remembered one other guy coming in on the back of a British Army Landrover, jumping off, taking a picture and the jumping back into the jeep and away,’

Speaking about the images 40 years on, Collins said: ‘The firemen are still there dousing the fires, there are people moving their furniture, there are nuns giving people tea. The images were alive. You didn’t have to look for the pictures, they were just there in front of you, asking to be taken.’

And that’s exactly what Collins did. While countless colour shots of the area were taken in the days and weeks following the riots, his pictures shed a new, more humane light on the events of that traumatic weekend. Between the men skilfully manoeuvring a bed frame out of a second storey window and the harsh-faced women in beehive haircuts sitting intransigent in front of the makeshift barricades, a quiet, stoical suffering can be observed in almost every shot.

In one particularly memorable image tin-hatted members of the Queen’s Own Regiment, rifles half-cocked, wander the narrow red-brick terraces of Bombay Street, Clonard Gardens and Kashmir Street, quizzical looks etched on their faces. Elsewhere, photographs of soldiers sleeping on the ground and sipping tea with locals serve as poignant reminders of the warm welcome the army initially received in Republican areas across the north.

‘Originally the arrival of the troops was very well received by the Catholic population on the grounds that it was a sign that Westminster was willing to intervene,’ said Adrian Guelke, professor of comparative politics at Queen’s University Belfast. ‘The reception they got on the streets was very favourable.’

Such was their popularity that the inchoate Provisional IRA explicitly did not target soldiers in the early years of the Troubles. But this was soon to change. ‘The initial honeymoon period was followed by a rough period in which the army killed a lot of civilians and that turned opinion against them,’ remarked prof Guelke.

In February 1971, the first British Army lost its first soldier in what became known as Operation Banner. The following year it suffered over 100 fatalities. ‘Army casualties in this period were very high. From 1976 on the army took a back seat in Northern Ireland,’ continued prof Guelke.

All told the army lost 765 servicemen in Northern Ireland since 1969, including two Sappers killed by the Real IRA in Antrim in February.

While the legacy of the British Army in the north streets still contentious, were it not for the soldiers’ arrival the loss of life on Bombay Street, August 15, 1969 would certainly have been much greater.

Frankie Quinn agreed. ‘If it hadn’t been for the intervention of the British Army there’s no doubt it would have been a massacre. There would have been a lot more destruction and a lot more death, no doubt about it.’ As it was on Saturday August 14 there were 65 occupied houses on Bombay Street, by Sunday night that figure was down to 20.

In the immediate aftermath most residents left the area, many never to return. Within weeks the impromptu barricades dividing the protestant Shankill from the catholic Falls had been replaced by corrugated iron peace walls. At the time Sir Ian Freeland, the British Army General in charge of operations, remarked that these barriers would be ‘a temporary affair’. 40 years on they have proved far more durable than that – in fact, the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast have increased from 26 to 80 since 1994.

For more info on the Red Barn Gallery, Bombay Street from the Ashes and Frankie Quinn’s amazing photography check out

40 years of the British Army in Northern Ireland
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