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9 June 2003

The Royal Irish does a great job... so it had to be hacked

So the rumours were accurate: the Government's war on the institutions of the state continues unabated. The latest target is once again the Army - the only public service that does its work with conspicuous success. 

Whether asked to fight fires, destroy mountains of animal corpses or take Basra, the Army snaps to it and delivers. Yet, at a time when it needs 10,000 more soldiers, it is being ordered to sack 3,500 members of the Royal Irish Regiment that has been a vital force in the domestic war against terrorism [report, May 28]. 

After more than three decades living happily in England, this Irishwoman is still dismayed by the self-loathing of many of its elite. The Irish may be tiresome in their conviction that they were MOPEs (Most Oppressed People Ever), but they are proud of their culture and their country: too many English people are self-destructive in their determination to see their history as shameful and their present and future as an opportunity for breast-beating and atonement.

I love my adopted country in a hundred different ways, but the downside of its being the most civilised nation in the world is its warped obsession with being fair to the chaps on the other side. The level playing field was a nice idea: handicapping your own side is not. 

It is as insane to get rid of a regiment because its enemies don't like it as it is to persecute soldiers such as Colonel Tim Collins because you feel obscurely that it is bad form to win. 

The lunacy is all about – in an asylum system that embraces the Taliban and Ba'athists, a judiciary that has abandoned the common sense that the great Lord Denning believed should be its guiding principle and a ruling class that has allowed the rights culture to threaten the effectiveness of all our institutions. 

We shudder when we hear of the burglar suing Tony Martin, but we should be even more alarmed at how endangered are the security forces.

The RIR is the latest victim in the campaign of destruction by parts of the Establishment against the protectors of the state. 

The report by the well-meaning Sir William MacPherson was brilliantly deployed to break the spirit of the Met; £200 million of taxpayers' money is being squandered on Lord Savile's inquiry into why the Paras killed 13 people in the middle of guerrilla war; Chris Patten unwittingly provided the means to destroy the bravest and most effective police force in western Europe; Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Met, is tireless in his determination to put under a spotlit microscope the murky workings of police, Army and MI5 as they struggled to save the lives of the citizenry; and the Army, the pride of our public services, has so lost the will to defend itself against those who hate it that it is betraying its brightest and best.

As a pragmatic historian, I almost always see cock-ups and rarely conspiracies but, in the case of Col Collins, from the outset I saw not only muddle-headedness and jealousy at work, but a deliberate attempt by some of those whom Sinn Fein calls "secureaucrats'' to use outrageous allegations against a fine soldier as a weapon against a regiment that had become a bargaining counter with the IRA.

Tim Collins was the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the RIR (although the disbandment will not affect the one general service battalion that recently returned from Iraq under his command).

Created in 1992 through a merger of the Royal Irish Rangers and the Ulster Defence Regiment, like the RUC, the UDR/RIR has been subjected for years to intense and effective black republican propaganda. 

On Sunday, for instance, a southern Irish newspaper of the fellow-travelling variety described it as "loathed by republicans for its track record of violence and intimidation against Catholics''.

Well, there were bad apples in the UDR and are no doubt in the RIR but, in general, considering that they were fighting terrorists, their country should be proud of their courage and their restraint. They lost more than 200 members during the Troubles, almost all murdered by republicans, yet they killed only eight. 

To put it in perspective, republicans of various stripes were responsible for 59 per cent of deaths, the security forces as a whole for 10 per cent, the RUC for 1.4 per cent and the UDR/RIR for 0.2 per cent. I have known innumerable ordinary men and women who joined the UDR to defend their local communities, who lost comrades and friends and family to local terrorists and who never sought revenge. 

Yet so skilful and audacious was the propaganda, so guilt-ridden the Establishment and so anxious were British politicians to bribe the terrorists, that there was little effort put into defending the reputations, the ethos or even the effectiveness of the UDR/RIR, the RUC or indeed the Army as a whole. 

The UDR felt shamed by the abolition of its name, the RUC was embittered by being renamed and enfeebled, the Army is fuming about Savile and Stevens and now the three home battalions of the RIR, which still perform a vital function against paramilitary criminal gangs, are to be disbanded as another sop to violent republicanism.

That an impromptu speech by Tim Collins should have seized the imagination of millions was annoying to envious colleagues. But that a Belfast-born officer in the RIR should become the hero of the Iraq war was infuriating for those planning to run down his regiment. 

There is no benign rational reason why the Army gave houseroom to the idiotic complaints against Col Collins by a whingeing American high-school counsellor and leaked them to the press, along with the information that there would also be an investigation into a "bullying'' culture in the RIR because of a suicide two years ago. 

Bullying and suicide are a sad feature of military life that the top brass normally brush under the nearest carpet. Why did they suddenly want a spring-clean?

It was too much to hope that our present Establishment would rejoice in the success of Col Collins and his men. It is terrifying that it blackened the name of a brave regiment because Gerry Adams wants it abolished.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards