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‘I was an Irish-born soldier in the British Army during the Troubles. People just couldn’t understand it’

Alan Barry was a second-generation Irish man who joined the British Army and found himself stationed in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

File photo of British soldiers in Northern Ireland in 1981.
File photo of British soldiers in Northern Ireland in 1981.
Image: Associated Press

NORTHERN IRELAND MAKES you choose every day – choose where you’re from, if you’re Catholic or Protestant. Dealing with the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was very uncomfortable for me. I regarded them as thugs in uniform.

They were outright sectarian in their behaviour and this rankled with me. I saw myself as a British soldier and there to do a job. When soldiers are involved in the politics, you are going to have worse problems – the UDR being a case in point.

It was a thick summer’s night during the 1986 World Cup and Northern Ireland had been playing. We were on a checkpoint in County Tyrone. We were with some UDR and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Officers. They were breathalysing drivers as they came through the checkpoint. The RUC had pulled over two drivers who’d failed the breathalyser.

Soon after, another quite clearly inebriated man pulled up. The UDR and RUC laughed and joked with him and waved him on.

‘On our side’

I asked “Why’d you wave him on?”

“Well he’s on our side.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s a Protestant.”

“Well what about those two over there?” I asked.

“They’re Fenians,” was the response. I thought to myself, ‘they’ve all taken the risk drinking and driving, they’ve all broken the law’.

“That’s not right,” was my reply

“What do you mean that’s not right? They’re Fenians,” he replied incredulously.

You can’t do that. Just because someone is a Protestant doesn’t give you a reason to let them off. My father is an Irish Catholic and he could be one of those two guys just as easy.

“That’s different,” he said. “No, not having it, you either bag everybody or nobody, but you can’t just arrest someone depending on whether they’re a Catholic or a Protestant.”

“Well that’s the way it is here.” He retorted, upping the bullying ante.

“Listen lads that’s not going to work, either you take them all in or you let those two go, we are all here risking our necks and we are not here to support blatant sectarianism.”

“Really, is that right?”

I stood my ground, the three guys in my brick all backed me. The UDR let the two Catholics go. Kind of sums up something that was wrong with Northern Ireland, why not arrest all of them? They were all way over the limit.

Dealing with my commander 

A complaint was handed in and I was spoken to the next day by my Platoon Commander.

“You know your problem Barry, you think too much. We are here to do a job, we are not here to get involved in local politics.” There is never any point in answering back to an officer in the Guards.

Northern Ireland kept asking me the same question: “Where are you from?” Each time I answered I was a little bit more certain.

Another lovely summer’s evening at a border checkpoint with an RUC officer and my job was to check documents.

A Ford Granada estate, big family car with a mother, father and two children, pulled up with the old Southern Irish red number plates. As my eyes scanned the massive pink driving license, I noticed that the father was from Artane in Dublin.

“Oh, you’re from Artane are you?”

The man took a second or two to react, did a double take, and then answered, “Yeah I am.” He replied still looking puzzled.

“Do you know the Grove disco?”

“Course I do.”

“I used to go to the Grove disco there in Clontarf when I was a teenager.”

I stood there with my Grenadier’s beret and a sidearm, chatting to him about Artane and the famous alternative North Dublin music club. The whole situation was pretty alternative alright. The father got over the shock and chatted amiably for a few minutes. I let him on his way.

An Irishman in the army 

When I returned the RUC officer in his fly green uniform said nothing at first, but couldn’t hold it in. With his two thumbs pinned under his shoulders, looking at me like a peacock he asked: “So are you Irish then?”

“Yeah I’m Irish.” I am not sure I had ever really said it before, I was certainly never sure of it before.

“What’s your surname?”

“Barry.” A very important question in Northern Ireland, as it indicates which religious background you have.

“So you’re a Catholic?” The crux.

“Yeah what’s that got to do with anything?” I asked ever so slightly tensing.

“I just find it strange that you are in the British Army?”

I was taken aback by this.

“What’s that supposed to mean? I grew up in Britain and I wanted to be a soldier, so I joined the best regiment in the British Army.”

“What’s more, down south nobody ever asks: are you a Catholic or a Protestant? Both live in harmony.” I couldn’t stop myself then, I was only young, I gave him my whole speech.

In Phoenix Park in Dublin there’s a memorial to 375,000 Irish soldiers who fought in the British Army and the 50,000 who died fighting in the First World War. Out of a population of three million people, that is a significant number of men. And most of those were Catholics.

I thought I was on a roll so I kept going.

If you were ever to set one foot out of Northern Ireland into England, you would be treated as well or as badly as any other Paddy. No one’s bothered that you’re a loyal Protestant who loves the Queen. If there’s a bombing and you’re rounded up, I promise you’ll be treated as a Paddy or a Mick, don’t doubt it. To the average Brummie or Cockney, you’re just a Mick.

He didn’t say much else after that.

Alan Barry is an Irish born British Soldier, originally from Dublin, on his experience of the troubles in Northern Ireland during the 80s. This extract was taken from his new book, Salesman with an AK47 which is out now.

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