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The Para-normal

The Parachute Regiment's May riot through Coalisland in County Tyrone was no isolated incident. Fiona Foster reports

Fergal O'Donnell remembers the day his brother Kevin Barry came home early from a date and went straight to bed. Fergal wondered if he'd been stood up. The next morning he discovered why his brother had never made the date. 'I caught sight of his back as he came out of the shower. It was covered with round black and purple bruises. There wasn't an inch of white skin. Apparently it was a UDR patrol who'd used a rifle butt to beat him.'

Kevin Barry O'Donnell's beating at the hands of the Ulster Defence Regiment never made the news. Neither did the ordeal of their sister Roisin, assaulted by the RUC after a night out in Cookstown a while later. In May it was Fergal's turn to get a beating from the British security forces in his home town of Coalisland, County Tyrone. This time it made headlines.

Eight stitches

Fergal was beaten across the face by British paratroopers who had been stationed in Coalisland since before Easter. He needed eight stitches to a cut below his eye. In hospital with him were three friends suffering from gunshot wounds, after the Paras fired into the crowd which came to Fergal's defence. It was one of a series of controversial clashes between British soldiers and Irish civilians in Coalisland in May, which began with the Parachute Regiment rampaging through local bars and ended with the removal of the brigadier commanding the British Army in the region.

The unusual degree of media interest in the behaviour of one British regiment in Northern Ireland came in the wake of protests about the Paras' behaviour from the Catholic church, nationalist politicians, and even from local Unionist MP, Ken Maginnis. He is better known for publicly crowing about the SAS ambush in Coalisland earlier this year in which four IRA members, including Fergal's brother, Kevin Barry O'Donnell, were killed. When even Maginnis was moved to complain in parliament about the 'lack of courtesy' shown by Paras smashing up bars in Coalisland, it was guaranteed to force the story into the national news.

Fergal is cynical about the sudden interest in the problems of a small nationalist community that has been living with British Army violence since he was born, 23 years ago. 'Francie Molloy, our Sinn Fein councillor, has been making protests about this same kind of stuff for years but no-one's ever taken any notice before.'

Fergal believes that a recent incident in Tyrone, where Ken Maginnis' nephew was allegedly mistaken for a Catholic and pushed around by the Paras, explains the MP's uncharacteristic protests. The Paras were also indiscriminate in their choice of targets, wrecking Coalisland's 'yuppie' bar and one used by the local pigeon club. 'If they'd kept to wrecking McGirrs bar where myself and all the young people drink it would never have hit the headlines', says Fergal. 'The only difference with the Paras is that, unlike the RUC and the UDR, they haven't a clue who's who.'

The media's attempt to explain the clashes in Coalisland as an isolated incident in which one regiment lost control fits into a familiar pattern of cover-ups. It's always the 'rogue' cop who lost his head and gunned down three men in a Belfast Sinn Fein office, or the few corrupt constables, insensitive judges and cheating scientists who jailed the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Judith Ward. Now it seems the Paras are yet another exception to the rule of British fair play.

In reality, systematic repression is a fact of everyday life for many nationalists living under British Army occupation in Northern Ireland. In Coalisland it was not the Paras' behaviour but the outcry it provoked that shocked local people.

War zone

I visited Coalisland earlier this year, after the funerals of the four local IRA volunteers shot dead by the SAS as they made their escape from an attack on the imposing police and Army fortress that dominates the town. Before May, the town was best known in Britain as the starting place for the very first civil rights march back in 1968.

Many of the people I met in Coalisland were not even born when that civil rights march left their home town. Their whole lives have been lived in a war zone. According to Tony, now 21, 'if it's not the RUC, it's the UDR. If it's not the UDR, it's the squaddies. Just when you think things are getting a bit better they come at you with a vengeance.' Tony's brother was shot by British soldiers outside a youth club back in 1973. He was 17. In the cul de sac where he lives four out of the five houses have lost a family member in this war. One, Tony Doris, was 21 when he was killed in another SAS shoot-to-kill operation last year. His body was so badly burned he could only be identified by his dental records.

Almost everybody has at least one tale of harassment. Gerard's was only two weeks old and he still had the scars to prove it. His sister's car had been stopped by a joint police/Army patrol. 'At first it was just the usual abuse, they were calling my sister a Fenian whore and a cunt and they made her open the boot. I stayed in the car until I saw them pushing her about then jumped out to tell them to wise up.' They ended up in the local barracks where Gerard's sister had to watch as five soldiers gave him a kicking. The police have since charged her with assaulting five soldiers.

Karl told me how his best mate had finally decided to leave for America after spending 32 days out of six weeks in the barracks. 'They're allowed to hold you for seven days with no charges or evidence, but they rearrested him at the gate and held him for another seven days. They never even gave him a change of clothes, he was sat for two weeks in this old boiler-suit.'

Is this normal?

Last year things got so bad that a group of women, all aged over 60, formed a committee to oppose the harassment of the town's youth. Tipped off that the police and soldiers were stopping people, the women would surround them and take down their numbers. 'It was great while it lasted', said Gerard, 'and things did improve for a wee bit, but they're back to normal now'.

For the young people of Coalisland, 'normal' means trying to go for an evening out in nearby Dungannon, and spending the night in the search centre at Aughnacloy after being detained at a checkpoint. Kieran described the routine. 'They put a Brit or a policeman in the car with you in case you decide to speed off, and then have a jeep in front and behind, a kind of convoy. The worst of it is they deliberately take a route through a few Loyalist towns, identifying you and your car to any paramilitaries.' At the centre your car may well be taken apart. 'No-one bothers getting a nice car because they know it'll be wrecked.'

'At Christmas', recalled Sean, 'I got tarted up five times and never made Dungannon once. I spent two nights in Aughnacloy search centre. I suppose the Brits resent being away from home at Christmas. Jesus, I'd love them to stay home all year round.'

The Dublin government, the Catholic church and the Social Democratic and Labour Party all expressed concern about the 'counter-productive' effect of the Paras' action in Coalisland. One local priest spelled out the worry that young people would be driven into the arms of the IRA if the security forces were not brought under control. On one level this fear seems well-founded. Francie Molloy, speaking about Sean O'Farrell, one of the young IRA volunteers killed alongside Kevin Barry O'Donnell, described how the security forces had picked on Sean: 'They never seemed to realise that each beating made him hate them more and instilled in him a stronger determination to get them out of his country.'

But Molloy rejects the idea that the British government could somehow moderate the behaviour of the security forces. 'The harassment is part and parcel of British strategy. Whether it's here in Coalisland or West Belfast or any area where people vote republican, the British know that these people will settle for nothing short of an end to British rule. As such they have nothing to lose by sticking the boot in and I suppose ultimately they hope that ever more repression will break the will of the people.'

British strategy today seeks to pressurise and isolate further the core of republican supporters. When John Major met representatives of all the parties in Northern Ireland except Sinn Fein for crisis talks earlier this year, Unionist MPs jubilantly announced that Major had promised a new crackdown on the IRA. Within a week four young Coalisland men had been shot dead by the SAS.

The general election defeat of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in West Belfast, and the overall drop in the Sinn Fein vote, has encouraged the authorities to hope that an increase in harassment will further demoralise the war-weary republican communities. The paratroopers who ran riot in County Tyrone seem to have got the message about the government's strategy, even if they got a little mixed up about exactly who they were supposed to harass.

Carry on

The republican core might be more isolated today. But, as the youth of Coalisland demonstrated by standing up to the Paras, that core remains a pretty hard one. One young Coalisland man caught the mood of those determined to carry on the fight against British rule. 'Obviously when we see our friends being killed we have to ask ourselves whether it's worth it. We have to ask whether if we stop now can we expect the British to say, right, they've stopped, let's give them what they want, their freedom with justice; or can we expect them to say, right, we've beaten them, now let's stick the boot in even harder? All the evidence proves they'd do the latter, so we have no choice but to carry on.'
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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