Paddy Ashdown and Northern Ireland


Sir, – CDC Armstrong (Letters, January 9th) suggests that Paddy Ashdown’s comments that he could have joined the IRA if he had been a Catholic during the Troubles are at odds with an admiring letter he sent in 1971 to then Northern Irish prime minister James Chichester-Clark when he was a serving captain in the Royal Marines.

Is this really evidence of Ashdown rewriting his own history? There may be more consistency to Ashdown’s views than he allows.

Like many liberal unionists, Ashdown hoped that Chichester–Clark would stand up to those in his party who opposed further political reform. Chichester-Clark resigned in March 1971, at the outset of the Provisional IRA’s campaign against the British army.

Ashdown’s aspirations for unionism are understandable, if unrealistic, with the benefit of hindsight.

Following his 1970 deployment as a Royal Marines company commander in Belfast, Ashdown quickly voiced his concern at what he saw as a politically misguided British military strategy in Northern Ireland. In 1971 the influential British Army Review published an article by Ashdown entitled “The Officer as a Political Animal”. In it Capt Ashdown argued that officers were ill-informed when in came to understanding the political consequences of their actions in Northern Ireland.

Having spent much of his childhood in Northern Ireland, Ashdown found service there particularly testing as antipathy between Catholic working class areas and the British military grew during 1971 and 1972. Paddy Ashdown’s empathy, understanding the grievances that allowed the Provisional IRA to win support in parts of Belfast such as Ardoyne or Ballymurphy, gave him insights that others lacked.

The Royal Marines lost a valuable officer when Capt Ashdown resigned his commission in 1972. – Yours, etc,


School of Politics

and International Relations,

University of Nottingham,