Latest lessons from Ulster to Afghanistan

In the week of the Afghanistan conference, Portadown-born Captain Doug Beattie MC makes a vigorous soldier’s defence of the Afghan operation that , agree with it or not, makes more sense than 1,000 pieces of politics- speak. The Afghan Army is promising he says, unlike the locally recruited police

This would be like taking a police recruit from Crossmaglen in south Armagh, then getting him to patrol in Crossmaglen. Imagine all the local pressures he would be under from republican dissidents he might have gone to school with, or who knew where he or his parents lived. That is taking place in Afghanistan, and we, the west, are facilitating it.

It’s clear that Beattie for all his outspokenness remains onside of the British Army, as they still allow him to blog on the Army’s website in Helmand. Why 27 years in the army and only a captain although decorated for gallantry? Because he started out in the ranks. Typical Prod, he was no slavish admirer of his boss, the equally opinionated Col Tim Collins. If no man is an idol to his valet, no battalion commander is charismatic to his RSM, as he describes it in his own account.

Beattie, who was Collins’s regimental sergeant major at the time he made the famous speech, claims that, far from rousing his men, it made them fearful and apprehensive and it was left to him to “snap them out of it” by “bollocking them”. Collins’s speech was a brilliant, almost Shakespearian piece of battlefield oratory, and many will not like having it knocked down. By contrast, Beattie says, “like most Ulstermen my language is straight out of the gutter”. Yet it is this that makes this memoir such a riveting read.

I wonder what it was like overhearing the two of them in the tent, each trying to cap the other’s best lines?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London