The sight of it looks rather absurd now given all that has passed since. A phalanx of British soldiers, led by a spit-on-the-boot officer, marching crisply down a street as people stand in their doorways watching the latest dramatic turn in the centuries old conflict over Irish soil.
August, 1969 was a turbulent time in many places around the globe. The troubled streets of Belfast and Derry were competing for media attention with the likes of Vietnam, an atrocious civil war in a land known as Biafra, the social upheavals in the United States.
But Ireland had an historical edge on all these stories, and many more around the world besides. Troops from the island called Britain marching in Ireland was, after all, a sight that preceded the invention of gunpowder.
Surprising then that anyone at the time would even consider for a single moment that the arrival of Tommy on Bombay Street would somehow do for Belfast what his comrades of yore had done for Lucknow, Khartoum, Mafeking, Tobruk and all the rest.
Northern Ireland was, and remains, the great hangover from empire. You can’t win, you can’t lose. And it’s damn difficult to even get out. Given the historical experience in Ireland it was probably with an air of forlorn resignation that some British government officials in 1969 gazed into their black and white television sets as the troops performed their perfect marching drill for the cameras.
The days of marching would be few, of course. Very soon it would become a matter of darting in and out of doorways, eyes trained on the street corners and upper windows of those homes as yet unburned; eyes and gunsights on the men, women and even the kids who no longer offered the cups of tea. This was not going to be a quick operation. It was not going to be over by Christmas.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
The mission was confusing from the start for the individual soldier, the modern army’s Tommy. You were here to support the civil police in the protection of life, limb and property. You were here to lend support to the rule of law and the people living under that law. Yet some of those same people scorned your protection, defied you, hated you, shot at you. As a soldier, there was only one way to respond to that.
That response, decided and executed at command, operational and street level, would quickly reveal what just about everybody knew anyway: There was no military solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Yet, for all the invective leveled at the British army over the years, much of it justified, there would never be a solution hammered out beyond the bounds of the military presence either.
The sight of soldiers firing automatic weapons in streets that could just as easily have been in Leeds or Newcastle; the flag-draped coffins being rolled out of military transport aircraft at RAF bases back in England; the sheer draining expense and futility of it all, would draw into the debate on Ireland that part of the British political establishment and broader British public opinion which viewed the North as being something more than just a security problem, a just war against mindless terrorism.
The slogan "Troops Out" is as British as it is Irish. The military stopgap, for that’s what it turned out to be, illustrated, more than just about any other British initiative, how crucial it was to face up to the fact that Northern Ireland wasn’t a normal place or, as Margaret Thatcher would have it, a place as British as Finchley. It never was and never could be.
The future of the British military presence in Northern Ireland is as yet uncertain. The military profile may well have been lowered as a result of the Good Friday accord. Not a few nationalists – some would smile at the irony – might well have slept a little better in their beds as a result of massive recent deployments of soldiers at parade hotspots, not least the Garvaghy Road.
But the British military presence in Northern Ireland remains significant even if its deployment, in some areas, though by no means all, is more subtle. "Troops Out" remains part of the solution to the North’s woes, but only part. Fair policing, equal employment opportunities, the evolution of what most of us would see as normal political discourse and everyday business between the two communities must take root hand-in-hand with the final demilitarization of a conflict that was never classically military to begin with.
A full withdrawal of British troops will not by itself lead to a just and lasting peace, a foundation for a better society in Northern Ireland, a better Ireland in total. It will, however, be an essential part – for it can be gradual – and ultimately positive consequence of the peace process, should that process survive and ultimately thrive.
It can only be hoped that 30 years from now, the sight of young British troops in the streets and country lanes of Northern Ireland will have become a distant memory, along with the bigotry, intolerance, social inequality and historical blundering that gave their helmeted forebears cause to march, drink tea, kill and die.