Over the years different people have been talking about conversations and their place in our peace process. Former Chief Constable Matt Baggott spoke about “quiet conversations”, Vicky Cosstick, author of a comprehensive book on the walls of Belfast, wrote about the importance of “relationships and conversations” to help bring the walls down whilst Sinn Féin Party President Declan Kearney has been promoting “uncomfortable conversations”. Conversations, I believe are valuable, even transformative. I would see this article as the beginning of a series of articles I plan to write about some of the conversations I have had and still have which helped me to see things in a different perspective. Personally speaking, some of the most fascinating conversations have been with people from very different backgrounds who in trusting me have shared some of their story.
I begin the series with this reflection on conversations I have had with a number of people who served in the UDR during the so-called “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. It is written with the agreement and encouragement of the former soldiers I spoke to. In this short piece, I acknowledge its limitations such as not writing about how some Nationalists and Republicans experienced the UDR. I recognise for some people from such backgrounds who had bad experiences of the UDR this will be a difficult article to read. The main point of this piece however is to consider the human story of the cost of being part of the UDR.
Growing up in a Catholic, Nationalist home with almost no contact with the UDR (a combination of letters which used to make my blood run cold), apart from being stopped at road blocks by members of the force, I never socialised with a serving soldier never mind becoming friends with any. That was unthinkable. From my background I have very little understanding of armies. It is only now that my social circles have widened that I’ve met former soldiers, mostly in social contexts and have found the conversations fascinating. In my own way, I’ve had to humanise the people who were part of the UDR. Now that I am older and have opportunities for conversations with people, both male and female, who were in the UDR, I see things differently and for the first time am now aware of some of the impact of our “Troubles” on them.
I would have been aware that there were security risks for those who enlisted in the UDR but without hearing that directly from those served in it. I knew such people would have been careful not to disclose widely where they lived. What I did not know is some former soldiers are still very secretive about their background. Unlike some of the other articles I plan to write, for security reasons, I will not name any of the individuals I was talking to, nor give any idea where they live, not so much as to protect the individuals but rather owing to their concern for their sons and daughters. That concern centres around the fear for their sons and daughters if some of their neighbours found out their parents were in the UDR. I thought those days were over.
As part of my conversations, I began by exploring with former soldiers why they joined the UDR in the first place. From those I talked to, it seemed to be a very deliberate decision – they were concerned about the violence from all the paramilitary groupings, Loyalist and Republican, and felt obliged to serve to ensure that violence would not win out. Their decision to join up brought with it considerable costs, costs which they still live with today. In our conversations, I was keen to understand what those costs were and are. I heard about how difficult it was for UDR soldiers to visit their family who were living in some parts of Northern Ireland which were considered especially dangerous. They recalled some of the security that had to be put in place for them to attend the funerals of their parents. I heard about how during the height of the “Troubles”, the deceased parents of some soldiers had to be buried in separate graves in separate cemeteries for security reasons. The word “security” kept coming back – one former soldier told me about a conversation with a soldier from an English regiment who commented that he could return to the “security” of his barracks whereas they as soldiers from the UDR had to return to their own homes and all the dangers that went with that. The former soldiers spoke about some of the security they had to have in and around their homes. Their decision to join also meant they were restricted where they could live and socialise. There was also the matter of driving the car, coming out of their home in the morning, heading off for duty and returning home. They always were on the alert. One man spoke about the terror he experienced when turning on the ignition and realising he had forgotten to check under his car and wondering if the vehicle would explode. Years after they left the UDR, these former soldiers like so many former soldiers still feel the impact of their service. The nightmares haven’t ended and recur from time to time!
From my conversations with some former UDR soldiers, I now have some idea of the huge regret some of them have about having to keep the truth of their occupation from their children or encouraging their children (who knew their parents were in the UDR) to lie when they were asked in school what their parents’ jobs were – hence the title of this article. I am aware today that serving police officers encourage their children to be very guarded about what they tell their friends. In one conversation, I asked some former soldiers if they had any idea how many of their colleagues had been traumatized by the experience of being in the UDR. One of them instantly replied: “100%” and another added: “how could it have been any other way?”
As I finish, I acknowledge I am only touching on some issues for former members of the UDR. I am also left to wonder if many of these voices will ever be heard? It would be a pity if they weren’t.
Finally, my reason for writing this series of articles is to make a case for conversations with people we may consider enemies. In such conversations, we listen to understand other people’s stories and have the opportunity to talk to them and in doing so we humanise the other. I believe there is a transformative power in being able to hear and understand what it is like for another person. Such conversations change us. I know that because they are changing me.
Fr. Martin Magill is the Parish Priest at Sacred Heart Parish, Belfast.