Lure of combat draws Irish men and women to British army


Being able to sign up at 16 years is a key factor for Irish recruits to the British armed forces, writes Conor Lally

THE RISKS inherent in the British army's missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have done nothing to deter Irish men and women from joining the forces.

Last year, of the number of soldiers from the island of Ireland to join the British army, just three per cent were from the Republic. This year, that figure has jumped to 16 per cent, or about two recruits per month.

When this reporter spent a week embedded with the Irish Guards in Baghdad and Basra last year, virtually every Irish soldier serving there rattled off the same list of reasons when asked why they had signed up.

Many were very young, having barely turned 18 years when sent to Iraq. They cited the British army's willingness to take them on as 16-year-olds, unlike our Defence Forces, as a key reason for joining.

By lining up a career in the army they were able to convince their parents to let them leave school early, as most of them desperately wanted.

Others believed the travel opportunities afforded by the British army surpassed those on offer with our Defence Forces.

But mostly the Irish were motivated by the age-old lure of danger. They simply wanted to see full combat on the front line in the most dangerous combat zones in the world.

Ranger Justin Cupples, who lost his life in Afghanistan on Thursday, is the latest Irish soldier to be killed serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lance Cpl Ian Malone, a 28-year-old from Ballyfermot in Dublin, was shot dead in an ambush in Basra on the opening days of the war in Iraq in April 2003. Last September 30-year-old Galway woman Ciara Durkin was killed in a shooting incident in her US army compound in Afghanistan.

News of Irish soldiers in the British and US militaries only reaches the public here when one of them loses their life.

However, a citation on the actions of an Irish soldier recently decorated by the British army for his bravery in Iraq offers an interesting insight into the challenges they can face.

In June 2007 the platoon under the command of Lance Sgt Gavin O'Neill came under sustained attack over a three-day period in Basra, southern Iraq. The 31-year-old Dubliner and his colleagues were resupplying the British "Basra Palace" base when attacked.

In the early hours of June 24th, while clearing a suspected roadside device from their path, the platoon took insurgent fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

His citation said that under heavy fire and in full view of the insurgents, O'Neill managed to return enough sustained fire to overwhelm the enemy and clear a way for the resupply convoy.

Just 24 hours later, on another resupply run, the platoon was attacked by insurgents using vehicle-mounted machine guns from two positions.

O'Neill broke cover and in full view of those firing at him and his men, took out the heavy machine guns using a grenade launcher, killing two insurgents in the process.

From Jobstown in Tallaght, O'Neill was in Pristina when it was liberated in 1999. He has also served in south Armagh and was one of the first troops into Basra in 2003, on the first of his two tours to Iraq.

He joined the British army in 1996 with nine of his friends from the FCA. One of the group was now-deceased Ian Malone, whom O'Neill refers to as "Molly".

Asked whether the excitement of combat enticed him into the British army, he told The Irish Times yesterday: "It's definitely a big part of it. We joined because the Irish Army weren't recruiting at the time. Me and Molly had two choices: either the British army or the French Foreign Legion. And neither of us could speak French, so that was that."