Byline: PETER DOBBIE
ANNIVERSARIES that mark the achievements of war can be useful. They are an excuse to ponder the 'what ifs' of conflict, while mistakes can be studied to avoid repetition.
July 14 next is one such date, the anniversary of a political decision we have lived with now for 30 years and one which has defined the British soldier in his new role as policeman. A role that Mr Blair clearly believes is the one that a civilised nation such as ours now has a moral imperative to carry through.
Last week he outlined his plan for the good guys to deal with 'undemocratic' maverick leaders. It is a vision of a multinational force for good, untainted by self-serving national bigotry and interest, moving in to zap a hated tyrant.
But the role of soldier-turned-cop was tried 30 years ago. July 14, 1969, was when the then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson sent British troops to Northern Ireland.
It is now incredible to recall that British troops were welcomed into Ulster by the minority Catholic population as liberators from the ethnic cleansing of the majority Protestant population, who tried to burn them out of their homes.
Soldiers were pictured receiving flowers and tea; officers chatting amicably with the local IRA commanders who ran a shambolic, pseudo-socialist grouping that sang ditties about the Thompson machine gun.
How quickly that changed. Two years later the first British soldier was murdered by the IRA. The Army was hated as a tool of oppression.
Those who had embraced soldiers as friends now lured them into back alleys where they were assas-inated.
Before the Good Friday peace accord of last year the 448th regular soldier was slaughtered. Another 197 part-timers have died. And during the past 12 months, while troops remain in Ulster hidden from sight, seemingly ashamed of their quiet heroics of the past three decades, the Government has tried to persuade the terrorists to give up arms by the early release of some of their most dangerous members. To date, no guns or explosives have been handed over, while 260 prisoners have been freed.
Quite simply, the soldier as policeman failed in Northern Ireland. In contrast, the IRA today stands better equipped, with a stronger pool of killer recruits, than at any time in its bloody history.
That lesson must be learned in Kosovo. Just as it was inconceivable three decades ago not to send soldiers to police injustices so near home, it now seems only natural that we fight injustice in the Balkans. …