This week British troops "stood down," as they'd put it. No, not in Iraq. They withdrew, rather, from Northern Ireland -- 38 years after they arrived to quell political violence between Nationalist and Loyalist communities there. In the early days community women welcomed British soldiers with cups of tea. But it was not long before the same neighborhoods resounded with the pounding of "bin lids," or trashcan tops, to alert all of an approaching British patrol.
Tragic encounters ensued. Tragedies of large scale, like Bloody Sunday, the name given to a 1972 Derry City civil rights march that ended with the deaths of 14 civilians. And tragedies of smaller scale, like the 1990 checkpoint shooting that left young Fergal Caraher dead and his brother Micheál wounded. In 1994, I served as a human rights observer at the 1994 murder trial of 2 British marines who'd shot them. That the 2 were acquitted surprised few with whom I talked; indeed, it was a measure of how bad things were that the fact of a trial at all was itself a surprise. It's thus no surprise to read that even today that despite peace in the province, for the Carahers' sister Maria "moving on will not be so easy."
The turn of events in Northern Ireland, no less than the length of time it took troops to leave, says much about the difficulties that surround military missions designed to aid local police in time of trouble.