I make a clandestine trip to Northern Ireland - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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I make a clandestine trip to Northern Ireland

I didn't find out until 2010 that my paternal grandfather, who died when my own father was only about four years old, was Irish and that I had a large number of relatives, uncles, aunts and cousins, most dead but many descendants still alive in the Republic of Ireland. Had that been known at the time I would almost certainly never have been posted to JSIW. When I was well into the second half of my tour at JSIW a new CO was posted in, fresh from a tour of duty at Headquarters Northern Ireland (HQNI). On my first introduction to him, he told me that the name Cunnane, in various spellings, was a common surname in southern Ireland and he asked if I had ever been to Ireland or if I had relations there. I told him what I still thought to be the truth: that I had no Irish relations, living or dead, but that I had spent a week on the Joint Anti-Submarine School (JASS) at Londonderry in 1958.

"In that case," said the Colonel, "I'll arrange for you to go over to Belfast for a few days to have a theatre briefing. I'll get my successor at HQNI to arrange hosting and visits for you to two or three interesting locations."

I flew to Aldergrove on the British Airways shuttle from Heathrow three days later. I had no advance information on where I would be going and what I would be doing during my three-day stay in the province. I was instructed to report to the Military Police desk in the airport arrivals hall where there would be further instructions for me. That seemed a bit daft! Surely the IRA would have watchers photographing any arrivals who reported to the MPs' desk?

A civilian car was waiting for me in the airport car park and I was driven to a nondescript town house where a Welsh Guards captain gave me a briefing on what his unit was and did. He told me I would be staying the night with them. After a semi-formal dinner with the officers of that unit during which we all had to watch the latest episode of The Bill on TV, I was taken on a 'routine' patrol around Belfast city centre in one of the Army's armoured vehicles. The four armed soldiers who were alongside me in the back of the vehicle said very little. I assume they had no idea who I was since I was wearing civilian clothes. I kept peering through a narrow slit in the vehicle's blinds hoping that this would convince the soldiers that I was doing some sort of recce; eventually one of them told me that we were entering a dangerous area and should keep the blinds firmly closed. Hint, hint!

Around midnight we stopped at a military facility and watched some 'suspects' being brought in for questioning, or 'screening' as it was called then. I declined an offer to sit in at the screening sessions as a silent observer, pleading tiredness, the first excuse that came into my head. My host seemed surprised but, without any further ado, he escorted me to my bedroom for the night. It was on the first floor of the same building and actually overlooked the Falls Road. I was advised not to be seen peering out through the windows while the curtains were open and the bedroom lights on otherwise I would surely become a target for a sniper!

On my second day in the Province I was taken from Belfast to an army base close to the Irish Border at Bessbrook, then occupied by Royal Marines. My driver for the day was a young army private. I was made very welcome by all the Marines I met at Bessbrook. As on the day before, no-one asked why I was visiting; I am not even sure they knew I was an RAF officer. I expressed interest in their vehicles, their armoury and the perimeter guard posts, and I climbed up into an observation post to view the scenery. We then had a splendid lunch in their wardroom.

In the afternoon I departed for Londonderry where I was expected at another Army unit. My driver got us well lost before we had travelled more than three miles or so from Bessbrook. We were both wearing civilian clothes but we were still using the same civilianised car we had used the day before. I thought at the time that it didn't seem sensible to me, bearing in mind the security situation at that time, but I didn't have time to think about it for long! I suddenly realised that my driver was looking anxiously into his rear view mirror. Driving slowly down a slight gradient on a very narrow road, flanked on either side by large trees, we came to a village signpost indicating that we were just entering Crossmaglen. Even I, with my very limited knowledge of Northern Ireland geography, knew that Crossmaglen was in South Armagh close to the border with the Irish Republic, and was an IRA stronghold at that time. My driver, by now looking frightened, leaned across me and took a loaded handgun out of the vehicle's glove compartment. I had no idea that he was armed until that moment.

"If we meet a road block, sir, get right down on the floor - out of sight," he said urgently, "I won't be stopping - I'll drive straight through."

I had this sudden thought that if we were not blown to pieces by a roadside bomb we might be kidnapped, and then I might have to put my own resistance to interrogation training to good use. To my intense relief we were not stopped. The driver found a place to do a 180-degree turn in the village and we resumed our journey to Londonderry. I had been briefed it would take no more than two hours to get from Bessbrook to Londonderry but it actually took well over three hours and it was dark when we reached our destination.

My hosts in Londonderry had already reported to HQNI that we were missing in a particularly sensitive area and that nothing had been heard or seen of us since we had left the Royal Marines at Bessbrook. When I last saw my driver he was standing rigidly to attention in front of a sergeant major, presumably trying to explain how he had managed to get lost and explaining why he didn't have a map in the car! Someone told me, whether in explanation or apology I know not, that the soldier had been in Northern Ireland for only three weeks and was not familiar with the geography! I might have asked why I had been allocated a driver so new to Northern Ireland and who had never driven outside Belfast city. I thought seriously about asking - but then chose not to.

When I got back to JSIW, I decided not to tell my Colonel about how close we had come to crossing the border but he had already had a full report from someone else. He told me that he was very disappointed that I had not accepted the invitation to watch the screening procedures but he didn't ask me for an explanation. He probably wrote me off as an RAF wimp but I could hardly tell him that I didn't approve of what the British Army was doing in Northern Ireland.

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