Why the case of ‘Soldier F’ should concern us all
Following the announcement of murder charges brought against ‘Soldier F’ by the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Authority, retired Lt Colonel Colin Vaudin offers an insight into the life-changing, split-second decisions he and fellow soldiers had to make every day while serving in Northern Ireland and questions the inequity and inconsistency of the immunity granted to their enemies.
ON A COLD and wet November morning in 1996 I was up early.
My wife, of only a few months, was still asleep and I didn’t want to wake her and I slipped out of the house without waking the dogs.
I was up early as I needed to go down to a patrol base on the South Fermanagh border between Northern and Southern Ireland and I wanted to get away before the young children who were paid to identify vehicles leaving my barracks in Londonderry were awake; the use of children, we called them ‘Dickers’, by the various terrorist groups was one aspect I always found particularly disturbing.
I drew my personal weapon, a Browning 9mm, and an unmarked car. As usual my job meant I was travelling alone, in civilian clothes, into one of the most dangerous parts of Northern Ireland. Every time I drove south from Londonderry, past Omagh and towards Enniskillen I was amazed by the beauty of the rural landscape. Driving through the first light of dawn just made it even more beautiful.
I had breakfast in the police station in Enniskillen. Known as ‘the submarine’, it was an ugly, concrete armoured building with few windows and heavy bomb-proof doors. The contrast between the beauty of the countryside and the ugly necessity of the Royal Ulster Constabulary station could not be more marked.
After a fairly good breakfast I left for the final and most dangerous part of the journey down to the Garrison Road that marked the border between the north and the south. These are small country roads with high hedgerows and as I crested a hill I saw a tractor three to four hundred metres ahead, totally blocking the road.
My mind raced. This was an ideal ambush location, with nowhere to turn around and nowhere to turn off, and the hedgerows meant that any number of people could be hiding just a few metres away. As with all soldiers, I recalled the killings of Corporals Howes and Wood a few years earlier. Having accidentally driven into an IRA funeral procession in Belfast, they had been dragged from their car, stripped, tortured and executed.
Training instantly kicks in. I changed gear to second so that the risk of stalling was minimised, I unclipped my seat belt so I could get out easily but tucked it under my bottom so it looked as normal as possible. I rolled the window down so if I had to shoot, the bullet wouldn’t be deflected by the glass. Finally, I drew my pistol, cocked it against the dashboard and held it down by my side.
The last 100 metres took an eternity as I drew up to the two figures stood by the tractor. Were these two farmers or the chat-up man and protection of an IRA roadblock?
As I stopped and the man came forward, my last thought was that, if I had to shoot, I must aim at his face in case he was wearing body armour.
The next two to three seconds could be the difference between life and death, for me and the man approaching.
If this was an ambush the chance of getting away was slim at best. I noticed the second man didn’t come forward and he had his hand behind his back; was he concealing a pistol? I brought the pistol up just below the window ready to fire.
He looked in, smelt of alcohol, and then in a thick South Fermanagh drawl he asked if I could help him move his tractor.
Relief, anger, and the realisation of how close I had come to firing.
Why did I delay, why didn’t I shoot? If it had been an ambush, my indecision would almost certainly have cost me my life.
In those few seconds I had to make a decision that could have taken his life and led to an investigation and no doubt a murder or manslaughter charge against me.
This was the reality of operations in Northern Ireland. Not the clean lines of the traditional war that we trained for against a Russian army in Western Europe. This was a dirty war where few wore uniforms, where death was often preceded by torture and low-ranking officers and soldiers made life-changing decisions in a few seconds under huge pressure.
It is a memory that I hope few will ever experience again.
The military presence in Northern Ireland was codenamed Operation Banner. It lasted 39 years, about 300,000 soldiers served in the Province and it cost the lives of 1,441 soldiers; over three times our casualties in Afghanistan. More than 3,532 people died during the Troubles and 90% of the deaths were at the hands of the terrorist groups, with the IRA responsible for more than 2,000. By contrast the security forces killed 363.
Part of the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement that ended the Troubles was the Sentence Review Commission that oversaw the early release of more than 500 convicted terrorists before their sentence was completed. Secretly a further 187 ‘on the run’ letters were issued to IRA members that effectively guaranteed them immunity from prosecution. Whilst unofficial, these ‘on the run’ letters in part led to the collapse of the trial of John Downey in 2014 who was charged with the Hyde Park Bombing of 1982 that killed 11 soldiers and 7 horses.
The armed forces must be held to account for their actions. Indeed the military’s own values and standards places far higher expectations on its soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines than anything equivalent in civilian life or wider society. Soldiers hold themselves to these high standards. Not only does this form the basis of military discipline but, more importantly, it is critical to operational effectiveness. Soldiers recognise that they are required to operate in exacting environments, often at extreme stress and ultimately to be prepared to kill or be killed. It is a job unlike any other.
It is against this background that the recent announcement by the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Authority of two charges of murder and four of attempted murder against ‘Soldier F’ of the Parachute Regiment, 47 years ago during Bloody Sunday, need to be judged.
Soldiers didn’t decide to serve in the province, they were sent there and followed the orders of the democratically elected UK Government. The vast majority served with courage, professionalism and a restraint that was often almost super-human. Remember, these were soldiers trained to kill or be killed, not a police force that they were now being asked to be.
The IRA didn’t show restraint or investigate and refer its members to a judicial process over the killing of soldiers or civilians. The political expediencies of 1998 led to the outcome where terrorists were either released early from their sentences or granted immunity from prosecution.
The failure of successive governments to do the same for soldiers is at best shameful, at worst it is a deliberate betrayal.
The case of ‘Soldier F’ isn’t isolated and I have to draw similarities to the shameful inability to address the ambulance chasing and subsequent hounding of British troops by groups like Public Interest Lawyers during and after the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. I do not blame, although I despise, the actions of these so-called human rights lawyers. Rather I blame the Establishment who for many years effectively stood by and let it happen. The inability of the Establishment to address the obvious inconsistency between its legal approach and protections for its own soldiers as opposed to the enemy should be extremely concerning for us all.
The first duty of government is protecting the realm. The lacklustre approach to addressing these inconsistencies, either due to a lack of leadership or short-term political expediencies, leads to either a misjudged revisionist view of history or an unwillingness to act that betrays those who fought for the freedoms that we all now take for granted. It is dangerous to judge retrospectively events and actions that took place during war decades before. We should be especially cautious in judging those who have done things in your name at times, in places and under such extreme situations that many cannot even imagine.
Those we send into combat should continue to be held to the highest of standards and, if they fail to meet those standards, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law; that isn’t argued against. But the inconsistency of treatment between our soldiers and our enemies has to be addressed.
I do not know the individual circumstances of ‘Soldier F’ and their actions on that day. I suspect only they do. However, it is perverse that soldiers can face prosecution for actions taken during a war almost 50 years ago while the enemy they faced on our behalf receive indemnity.
As others have argued, we must move immediately to implement a statute of limitations on the prosecution of service personnel. Service personnel will serve bravely, they are willing to be sent oversees on the orders of our government, but what they will not accept is being required to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives or feeling that they could be considered disposable to the political environment of the future.
I am incredibly proud to have served my country for more than 20 years and I still wear my medals with pride to this day, but unless and until such fair and equal treatment is introduced I regret that I could not advise anyone to join the armed forces. This should concern us all. Not only do we owe this as a moral obligation to those who serve in the armed forces, but unless our society values its service personnel you may find that next time no one will stand up and be willing to fight for you.
n Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Colin Vaudin served on operations in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the first Guernseyman to command a Regiment on Operations since the Second World War when he led 2 Signal Regiment in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 17. He was awarded a QCVS on the Operational Honours List 2013 for his command of his regiment.