Hard Men

Neal Ascherson

  • Contact by A.F.N. Clarke
    Secker, 160 pp, £6.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 436 09998 5

‘This book is written in anger,’ the author begins. ‘Anger at previous attempts to portray the British soldier. Anger at the violence and the hatred that became part of a way of life. Anger at the misrepresentation of the facts ...’

And here, at the very outset, as it seems to me, the writer starts to lose his way among his own emotions. Northern Ireland offers an infinity of occasions for anger, as Clarke knows better than most of us: he was a subaltern in the Parachute Regiment on two particularly foul spells of duty, in Belfast (Shankill Road, Crumlin Road, the Ardoyne) during 1973, and at Crossmaglen in South Armagh in 1976. These are the subject of his book. But anger is not really its dominant emotion, which is rather a seething mixture of remorse, divided moral loyalties and sheer confusion. Clarke loved or grew to love his ‘toms’, the very young men of 3 Para whom he commanded and some of whom never returned from Ulster. But under the fearful stress of their task, they and he developed an ethic of considerable – not total – savagery and callousness which no ‘civilised’ society can accept. As he says, the Parachute Regiment in Northern Ireland was ‘both famous and infamous, praised and hated’. They did brave things, but also cruel things which this ‘civilised’ society still with a fair measure of success pretends did not happen and do not happen. It is that pretence, that stifling and complacent agreement not to bring out into the open and confront the moral price of the British presence in Northern Ireland, which renders ex-Lieutenant Clarke so desperate. Nobody wants to hear this sort of confession, which means that nobody will grant him and his men absolution.

There are no grand atrocities in this book. Clarke was not present at ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry, for example, and beyond quoting some of the regiment’s own lurid myths can shed no light on what the Paras did or didn’t do that day. He is writing about ‘routine stuff’, about how the Paras behaved and talked on night patrols in the Ardoyne, on raids against Loyalist drinking-clubs, in rain-drenched hiding-places among the South Armagh hills, among hostile crowds when the flames were rising and the enemy snipers were beginning to find their targets. It is the brutality and ugliness of that routine, still being followed now as you read, that makes this book important. This is what nobody wants to know.

When an IRA gunman is wounded and captured, they let him bleed to death. When they pull in suspects, they beat them up, quickly and almost casually: the rougher things are done at a higher level by the people who come and take the suspects away for proper interrogation. When they are off duty, the ‘toms’ improve the hour by sticking pins and razor blades into ‘baton rounds’ and filing bullets down into expanding ‘dum-dums’ (something British soldiers have done ever since the invention of the rifle). When they are fired on from the territory of the Republic, on the South Armagh border, they fire back with vigour. A plastic bullet is aimed at the groin, if the aimer has time, and a woman caught in a street round-up on a dangerous night will not be handled or addressed with the decorum attributed to English gentlemen. And so on, and so forth. Clarke reconstructs his own thoughts: ‘I was really quite a nice guy before I came out here ... Build an outer casing round your emotions, enjoy the sense of power, revel in the excitement of the chase.’

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