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Too many unseen heroes in nationalism's one-eyed view

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  • Too many unseen heroes in nationalism's one-eyed view

    Too many unseen heroes in nationalism's one-eyed view
    Alan Ruddock
    The Irish Independent

    ON A cold evening in November, Colonel Tim Collins was treated to a home-coming, Irish style. For an officer who had led his battalion of the Royal Irish through the Iraq war without losing a man, who had been feted for his remarkable eve-of-battle speech, which combined uncompromising toughness with compassion and sensitivity, Colonel Collins might have felt entitled to at least a modicum of respect in his home town. Not a chance.

    As he arrived to speak at Queens University, where he had studied more than 20 years earlier, he was greeted by whistles, banners, flying eggs and chants of 'war criminal'. According to one of the protesters, Colonel Collins is 'a disgraceful example of the human race'.

    Last week, Colonel Collins announced his intention to resign from the British Army after 22 years of service. He was, according to his wife, worried that the army "is being crippled by political correctness, petty bureaucracy and the refusal of politicians who send British soldiers to war to give them enough money to do their job".

    The following day Geoff Hoon, Britain's minister for defence, was under intense pressure to resign following revelations that another British soldier, who had been killed during the conflict, had been ordered to hand back the body armour that would have saved his life because there was not enough equipment to go around.

    Predictably, Colonel Collins's resignation received little coverage in the Irish media. The Irish Times carried a wire report on its world news pages, which did not even acknowledge that the colonel was Irish. RTE, the State broadcaster that pursues an all-island news agenda, barely noticed the story. All to be expected, you might think: why should Irish news organisations take an interest in the goings on of the British Army and its internal difficulties?

    The answer is that their failure to recognise the significance of Colonel Collins's actions, and of his contributions to the war, underscored the one-eyed nature of our attitude to Northern Ireland and its people. If Colonel Collins was a hero, he was an Irish hero. Born and bred in Belfast, with family origins in Cork, he represents a strong strand of Irishness that nationalist Ireland has always refused to recognise. And, in the modern day pursuit of peace and understanding, it remains ignored, and when it is not ignored it is denigrated.

    Whether you supported or opposed the war (or, like the Taoiseach, did both), who could argue with Collins's eve-of-battle address, delivered in a rising sandstorm just 20kms from the Iraqi border. "We go to liberate not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them - Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis. You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing.

    "Don't treat them as refugees, for they are in their own country - in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you. If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves."

    With that compassion and sense of place came steel, too: "The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of hell for Saddam. He and his forces will be destroyed by this coalition for what they have done. As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity."

    It was a speech delivered for his men, but it turned Collins into a media celebrity. It helped that he was good-looking, chomped on cigars and wore Ray-bans - and was married with five children. He was the perfect, all-action hero and was hailed from the White House to Downing Street as all that was pure and righteous about the war. None of it was of his choosing, and the jealously that followed was as inevitable as it was depressing.

    Before long a US reservist accused Collins of mistreating Iraqi prisoners, allegations that were described as a 'travesty' by another US reservist and which were subsequently found to be baseless, but which were seized upon as proof that every hero has feet of clay.

    For Collins, the most hurtful consequence of the allegations must have been the failure of the army to rally round him: in an interview General Mike Jackson, the head of the armed forces, was questioned directly about the allegations and replied: "I can't comment - but, as a general statement, the British armed forces must behave impeccably. We set our standards extremely high and we must all maintain them." Hardly moral support for a man set upon by the petty jealousies of an American reservist he had upbraided and humiliated for disobeying orders.

    And so Collins, a man in his prime with that rare combination of charisma, intelligence, good looks and leadership, resigns. The army is undoubtedly the loser, and Collins will have little difficulty making his way in the privatesector.

    But his brief moment in the public eye tells us much about our society, and modern Britain too. We have no place for those who do not fit our stereotype: we play the game of understanding, of being inclusive, yet we cannot embrace and celebrate the Irish who have a different sense of purpose, of patriotism and of duty. Colonel Collins was decorated by the British, but he is unlikely to be recognised by the Irish government, or singled out for a man-of-the-year award in his native land. He, and thousands like him, sit outside the accepted version of what it takes to be Irish: as the Royal Irish go to war, and risk their lives, with the shamrock emblazoned on their vehicles, we look away. Not our people.

    Our crime is compounded by our inability to understand the need for an army. In a western world made soft by economic success and by decades of peace, we are disdainful of the men and women who are prepared to die so that we can live comfortable lives. And so, in our world evil flourishes: brutal dictators like Robert Mugabe remain untouched and untroubled by the so-called civilised world and when action is taken to halt genocide in Yugoslavia or to end a foul regime in Iraq, we take to the streets and protest.

    In Britain, the rewards for the armed forces are spending cuts, bureaucratic failure and a culture of political correctness that wants safety rails on assault courses. We are too soft for warriors, and are made uncomfortable by their presence. The international ambitions of Tony Blair, the prime minister, are threatened by the domestic follies of a Labour administration that is disdainful and distrustful of its own armed forces. The British army is stretched to breaking point across the world, bedevilled by a bureaucracy that fails to ensure that equipment and medical supplies get to the troops and by a culture that cuts spending and drives soldiers in their prime into the grateful arms of the private sector.

    In Ireland we avoid the debate by refusing to recognise that many of those warriors are ours. We can claim that we are neutral, that we somehow stand aloof from the conflicts that rage around the world, washing our hands of any responsibility and avoiding any debate. Not our war, not our people.

    Our idea of covering Northern Ireland is to lampoon David Trimble as a nay-sayer, laugh at Ian Paisley's belief that Sunday should be sacred and laud the tradition that labels men like Colonel Collins a war criminal. We are as far from understanding as we have ever been, yet we fool ourselves that we have somehow made a leap across the divide. It is a pathetic state that we are in: bewildered by good intentions that can only have bad consequences, confused by our determination to understand rather than to combat evil, whether at home or abroad.

    Tim Collins is an Irishman, and a good one. He is far from perfect - and must be haunted by the suicide of a young soldier under his command - and is no carbon copy hero, but he is one of ours: we should be proud of what he achieved in Iraq, and proud of the way he addressed his fellow Irishmen before they went into battle.

    If we are to make progress, we have to embrace men like Collins, as much for their Irishness as for their willingness to fight and die in the wars that must be fought if the world is not to be a safe haven for evil.

    Otherwise, there will be no one left to fight and the cosy world that we enjoy will decay. No amount of egg-throwing and name calling will prevent that.

  • #2
    I thought this was an intresting article i was reading today. What you guys think about it?

    (tryin2post in news all day)


    • #3
      Andy, this has been posted already in the Iraq section. Its not suitable for the news section because it's not about the Irish DF.