Thousands of people have gathered at a commemorative event in Lisburn to mark the 50th anniversary of British troops being deployed in Northern Ireland in August 1969.
Veterans of the British army’s longest-running military operation, Operation Banner, which ended in 2007, were among those to take part in a parade and drumhead and religious service at Wallace Park in the city.
The Northern Ireland Veterans Association (NIVA) event on Saturday was organised to commemorate the 763 British soldiers killed during the conflict in the North, and others killed and injured from August 1969 to recent times.
Representatives of the Ulster Special Constabulary, Royal Ulster Constabulary, Police Service of Northern Ireland, Ulster Defence Regiment, Royal Irish Regiment, Northern Ireland Prison Service, An Garda Síochána, Irish Defence Forces, Irish Prison Service, Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and regimental associations of regular army units that served in the North were also present.
The NIVA had previously announced that Parachute Regiment flags or banners referencing “Soldier F”– the British army veteran being pursued on murder charges in connection with deaths on Bloody Sunday – would not be permitted, as the day was about commemoration and remembrance rather than protest.
Organisers also said bands which had signed up to play music had agreed to no colour parties or flags.
Coronation Street actor Charles Lawson, a NIVA ambassador, whose family served in the British army, said he was "very proud to be in attendance".
“It’s a commemoration, we are not here protesting, we are not here flying flegs (sic), we are not here about that, it’s about commemoration of Operation Banner, and I am very proud to do so,” he said.
Mr Lawson said the conflict in the North was a “traumatic and horrible and particularly gruesome time for everyone right across the community”.
"There were people here today who were put in intolerable positions and over in England they tend to want to forget us over here no matter what colour they wear, so I hope John Mercer, appointed by Boris Johnson [as an armed forces minister] – he can stick his arms out and remember the people from all across the community who served in Operation Banner," he said.
He refused to be drawn on questions about Bloody Sunday or any other conflict-related incidents.
“Terrible things were done by everybody to everybody,” he said.
Yvonne Black, the widow of murdered prison officer David Black, said Saturday was a "special, difficult and more emotional day" than she had expected.
She said her husband – shot dead by the New IRA in 2012 as he drove to work at Maghaberry prison – was never seen out in uniform, as he was "behind the walls". "To see people here today representing the Prison Service makes me really proud," she said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and party chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a former UDR member, said marking the 50th anniversary was a significant moment for the men and women who served in Operation Banner.
Ms Foster said it was a personal commemoration for her as her policeman father had been shot during the course of Operation Banner, so she would be thinking of him and also of “the wider impact the service and sacrifice had in Northern Ireland”.
She said veterans “stood between us and anarchy actually during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and therefore we are very grateful”.
Mr Donaldson said there needed to be a proper process taken forward now around the legacy of the past, taking on board the concerns of victims and survivors, veterans and others.
“This cannot be about the politics of the street,” he said. “It is far too important for that.”
Yorkshireman John Hutchinson, a former soldier who served in Belfast, Omagh and South Armagh, was at the event with the Legion Riders motorcycle crew.
‘Nobody should be exempt’
On the issue of the prosecution of soldiers, he said: “Nobody should be exempt from rule of law, full stop – but if there is a witch hunt, that is not fair. If it was equal, 50/50, and they were chasing everybody for crime, I would be quite happy, but it doesn’t seem to be at the moment.”
On the wider debate about the appropriateness of commemorations he said, “It depends how you do them.”
“There is no vitriol with today, it’s to commemorate the men who were actually murdered,” he said.
“We did things for the good and benefit of the public to try and stop terrorism on both sides of the blanket. We weren’t just anti-IRA, we were anti-every bloody terrorist.”
Belfast-born former army Captain Terry Bashford (73), who served in the army from 1961 to 2013, said he was "paying respect to all the guys who didn't make it and those still here suffering and injured".
On criticism of the level of aftercare for soldiers he said: “A lot of guys that leave are on their own, no support, so there definitely needs to be a lot more help, especially for those suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. You can’t see it, but it’s there.”