Attacks by British army thugs on the small nationalist town of Coalisland in County Tyrone have caused political reverberations in London and Dublin.
First the British army announced that an officer in the infamous Parachute Regiment had been suspended in the wake of British troops, under his command, rampaging through a Tyrone town after sealing it off.
News of the removal of Brigadier Tom Longland came close on the heels of widespread calls from the nationalist community and politicians, as well as from the Dublin government's minister of foreign affairs, David Andrews, for the total removal of the paratroopers from the Six Counties.
Unanimous calls by nationalist politicians in the area for the total withdrawal of the Parachute Regiment were dismissed. There could be no no-go areas warned Michael Mates, British security minister for Northern Ireland. In its place the people of Coalisland were promised "sensitive deployment" of the Paras.
In less than a week, three unarmed civilians were shot and wounded by members of the now "sensitively deployed' Parachute Regiment, who opened fire on a group of people outside a Coalisland pub on Sunday, May 17. Initial reports painted a picture of British army foot patrols overwhelmed and under attack. The story included stolen weapons, hostile crowds and even the suggestion of republican orchestration — the shadow of the gunman.
Michael Mates defended the shootings as "entirely justified" and described the actions as "self-defence". The accounts of the ordinary people of Coalisland is strikingly different.
On May 12, soldiers from the Parachute Regiment sealed off the town, turning motorists away with the false claim that there was a "suspect device" on the road, while they wreaked havoc in two bars in the town centre, injuring three people. One eyewitness said that baton-wielding soldiers kicked their way into the bar "crashing, roaring and shouting obscenities" before smashing bottles and glass and beating the bar's customers.
On the evening of May 17, a group of young men in the town centre were approached by a foot patrol of the King's Own Scottish Borderers. When a soldier head-butted one of the young men and he reacted, the soldiers threw down their weapons to engage in a fist fight.
According to local people, the sight of British soldiers engaged in a fist fight with the youth of the town is not out of the ordinary. Speaking at a press conference, former MP Bernadette McAliskey said that over the last few weeks there seems to have developed a rivalry between regiments in the British army to "take on" youths in the town.
Contrary to reports that the soldiers had been forcibly disarmed, the weapons were simply abandoned and were left lying undisturbed on the ground for over 20 minutes before the British army or Royal Ulster Constabulary made any attempt to recover them. The RUC claim that one of the weapons, a machine gun, is missing, is viewed with scepticism by the local community as providing a convenient excuse to raid and harass.
The events which followed that night are recounted by a local eyewitness, Dessie Symington:
"I was in the Rossmoyne Bar when I heard the shouting. I knew the paratroopers were back in town and I wanted to see what was happening. A number of us ran outside. There was about 20-25 paratroopers and two of them were hitting a youth at the front of the bar. A number of local people came out and tried to intervene and stop the lad from getting a beating. The paras were jumping about in a very aggressive manner, coming out with all sorts of vile language. They were shouting 'Irish bastards', 'Fenians' and other racist remarks.
"One particular soldier was running about holding a gun and actually challenging people to come and try to take it off him. 'Take this, take this, see if you can get away with this', he was shouting. No-one was going to have anything to do with that. He was obviously in a very aggressive mood.
"The soldiers were trying to beat a group of four people, they were struggling with them as they tried to defend themselves. One of the soldiers suddenly jumped up and shouted 'you bastards' as he lifted his rifle and started shooting in the air. We tried to get everyone back in the pub but the soldier starting firing again. We were in the doorway of the bar when one fella came and told us he was shot in the leg. We discovered that the owner of the bar had also been wounded. He was wounded in five different places and losing an awful lot of blood. We thought he might die before an ambulance arrived."
Throughout the whole incident the RUC were standing a few yards away. They made no attempt to intervene. Other witnesses said that the RUC simply stood watching and laughing.
Describing the area as "virtually under siege since the paras arrived" in April, Bernadette McAliskey told the Coalisland news conference that the regiment "appears to be intent on leaving their North of Ireland tour of duty with a Coalisland corpse under their belts. Over the past weeks, the paratroopers have made it perfectly clear to the citizens of this town that they intend to kill before they go."
Since the arrival of the regiment, nationalist towns in County Tyrone have witnessed a sharp increase in the level of harassment. Patrols have been humiliating young men by forcing them to strip to the waist and take off their shoes and socks during routine stop and search operations in the streets. There has also been a sharp increase in the number of brutal and at times near fatal attacks by the regiment, eople within the communities.
In one particularly brutal attack, a young man, Dermot Boyle from Cappagh, was attacked and brutally beaten by paratroopers. Seriously injured, Dermot was detained in hospital with suspected brain damage.
In another incident, a young Stewartstown man, Adrian Devlin, was shot in the back at close range by a plastic bullet when a paratrooper jumped in front of the car he was driving and forced him to stop. Adrian's life was saved only by the quick and resolute action of local people who witnessed the incident and dragged the injured man into a nearby house. As Adrian lay injured, the paratroopers forced their way into the house and one soldier tried to shoot him. His life was saved when an elderly resident threw herself in front of the soldier.
Another young man stopped by a foot patrol was held by the throat and lifted off the ground until he almost lost consciousness, when he was thrown to the ground, then lifted by the throat again. In a particularly malicious attack on the livelihoods of people in Kenturk, paratroopers sealed off the area while they destroyed fishing boats and equipment.
[Compiled by John McGill from reports in An Phoblacht/Republican News.]