Deep divisions over Troubles erupt as council agrees to consider army museum
Age-old animosities between unionists and republicans were on show last night as Mid and East Antrim Borough Council agreed to look into creating a military museum.
The motion was proposed and seconded by two DUP members, and the overwhelmingly-unionist council ultimately voted in favour of it – but not before a row broke out over the activities of the armed forces during the Troubles.
There had been early signs that a dispute was brewing, when a motion was raised backing Armed Forces Day 2021.
Sinn Fein councillor Ian Friary (one of only two Sinn Fein councillors sitting in the borough) said: “It’ll come as no surprise Sinn Fein will be opposing the Armed Forces Day.
“The British Army terrorised the nationalist community in Ireland.
“Murder. Collusion. The list goes on. As a council we should support Mid and East Antrim as a place where everyone can live in peace and harmony.”
The meeting went on, and the following motion was put before councillors: “That this Council explores the possibility and undertakes an investigation of having a Museum within the Borough to mark the significant contribution and sacrifice of the Royal Irish Rangers, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Royal Irish Regiment and other Regiments linked to our Borough.”
There was talk that it could be sited, for example, at the old St Patrick’s Barracks site in Ballymena, where a new housing estate is planned.
He said: “History is history. My history is your history. Your history is my history. It’s a shared history.
“There’s no mention of the likes of the Argenta – which was an internment ship in Larne Harbour.
“The overspill from that went to what did become the Moyle hospital.
“Conditions were described by an English MP, whose name escapes me at the minute, as ‘subhuman’.
“Given the make-up of this council, the motion will go through.
“But I think it’d be very, very important to look at a wider narrative on the whole thing.
“My experience, and many other people’s experience, of the British Army, UDR etc, etc, are very, very different to the vast majority of people in this room.
“I think it should be more inclusive, and show not just the sanitised version of events that councillor McKeen (Greg McKeen of the DUP) outlined, but it needs to include a wider history.”
UNIONISTS HIT BACK:
This prompted a strong response from unionists.
Matthew Armstrong of the TUV said: “If you want to about things that are subhuman or thorny issues, let’s talk about Narrow Water – let’s talk about that.
“Where soldiers were butchered and blown up. Let’s not have that revisionism in here.
“When are we going to get to this shared future, when people who are in support of the army can’t do it without being challenged on X, Y, Z nonsense.
“Guys that were in the UDR went to work in their communities, and go home at night and out on patrol to face goodness-know-what.
“They didn’t have their faces covered. Everybody knew who they were.
“That was a noble thing to do. Pressing a button on a remote control and blowing up soldiers was not a noble thing to do.”
Councillor Paul Reid (DUP), with his voice raised loudly, told councillors: “I’m proud of my links with the UDR. They didn’t wear a uniform Mr Mayor because they hated the constituents or their neighbour or anyone down the street.
“The wore that uniform because they wanted to make a difference in Northern Ireland, and many of them paid a big price, and many of them lie in a six-by-two because of cold-blooded acts of terrorism in Northern Ireland.
“We cannot re-write that history tonight, tomorrow, next week, or any week.”
Councillor McKeen added that it had been a divisive discussion, “and we can see where that divisiveness has come from” – laying responsibility with Sinn Fein.
Alliance councillor Patricia O’Lynn also added her voice, saying: “Already the conversation has descended into a tone of discussion that sounds like it’s pre-peace agreement.
“In response to councillor Armstrong’s question, when do we get a shared future? Whenever we show each other more tolerance, respect, dignity, and humility.
“I’d like to see some more of that going forward.”
Ultimately the motion passed by a clear margin.
It is not immediately clear what the next steps will be in planning for the museum.
THE HARD STATS:
The CAIN project, a university-run repository of Troubles information, notes the tally of fatalities between 1969 and 2001.
It says the British Army killed 299 people.
In addition, the UDR killed eight people.
The biggest killers, by far, were the IRA, with 1,705 deaths listed next to them (which is an underestimate due to killings which were unclear or unclaimed).
The next biggest killers were the UVF, with 428 murders (again, an underestimate for the same reasons).
The British Army lost 502 personnel in the same time.
The UDR saw 196 members killed (plus another 40 former members).
The IRA lost 277 members, and the UVF lost 62.
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