WHEN I was growing up in England in the 1970s and 80s, Ulster cast a gloomy shadow. Sour news marred salad days. Through the familiar memory-scape of blithe youth we danced to a playful tune; then the day’s discordant, dumbfounding announcement: ‘A British soldier has been shot dead in Northern Ireland.’
Ten fleeting words, yet for the family ten thousand shards of shattered dreams; a cathedral of life’s possibilities desecrated.
The young squaddie’s picture is released; carefree or – in uniform – quietly determined; proud. He is one of us; we, the British tribe – save the craven clique of appeaser-MPs – mourn too.
We pose instinctive, ‘naive’ questions. How could they? Why kill a British soldier? Discernment of the other side’s perspective comes later, and slowly. But the incomprehension – and yes, controlled anger – never fully fades. Nor should it; there were democratic alternatives to murder.
In that long, sanguinary conflict no single image emblematises. Yet one poignant photo stands out; a young officer on patrol in the Ardoyne, surrounded by children. Robert Nairac, progeny of a mixed Protestant and Catholic marriage, found an affinity for Ireland through an Irish school pal, going on to visit friends in Dublin and stay with a family in Connemara.
He read medieval history at Oxford, where he excelled in rugby and boxing. Angling was a favourite hobby, falconry too; a bird he kept in his room was used in the film Kes.
After graduating in 1971 he went to Sandhurst before joining the Grenadier Guards. A former guardsman in the same regiment recalled: ‘He volunteered for Northern Ireland because he loved Ireland and thought he could make a difference. He interacted with the Irish community and genuinely believed peace should be brought back to Ireland.’ The Provos called it British imperialism.
Aged 28, Captain Nairac, now working in intelligence, was on undercover duty in a pub in County Armagh, posing as an IRA member. Witnesses said he got up and sang a republican folk song with the pub band. Near closing time, he was set upon in the car-park. His George Cross citation reads:
‘On the night of 14/15 May 1977 Nairac was abducted from a village in South Armagh by at least seven men. Despite his fierce resistance he was overpowered and taken across the border into the nearby Republic of Ireland where he was subjected to a succession of exceptionally savage assaults in an attempt to extract information which would have put other lives and future operations at serious risk. His assassin subsequently said, “I shot the British captain. He never told us anything. He was a great soldier.” Captain Nairac’s exceptional courage and acts of the greatest heroism in circumstances of extreme peril showed devotion to duty and personal courage second to none.’
Nairac’s memory is revered in the Grenadier Guards; his portrait hangs in the officers’ mess in Wellington Barracks. Perhaps creeping military wokification will put the emergence of future Nairacs in doubt, but for now his like still grace the armed forces, as more-recent conflicts testify.
The ex-guardsman said of Nairac, who would have turned 73 later this month: ‘He was an officer and he led by example. He did not expect his men to do anything he would not do.’ Somehow, we already knew.
The IRA never revealed the location of Nairac’s grave. His parents went to theirs unable to say goodbye; the same fate awaits his two elderly sisters. Had that rite been granted, perhaps Shakespeare’s words would have comforted:
‘Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier’s debt . . . Your cause of sorrow / Must not be measured by his worth, for then / It hath no end.’