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29 May 2003 Edition

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RIR 'war hero' in the dock

BY FERN LANE

The British love their military heroes, but their latest, it seems, has turned out to have feet of clay. Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment, who was fÍted by the British and US media after his rousing speech to his troops on the eve of war in Iraq, and who was consequently singled out for special praise by both Prince Charles and President Bush, is now under investigation for alleged war crimes.

Collins, who told his men they should be "ferocious" in battle, but "magnaminous" in victory and warned them that "you will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest", is, ironically, reported to have beaten a civil official with a gun and subjected the man, Ayoub Yousif Naser, and his son, to a mock execution. He is also accused of firing at the feet of Iraqi civilians and of shooting out the tyres of vehicles when there was no threat to him or his men. Despite his Shakespearean performance, neither Collins nor his men saw any action in Iraq. They spent their time guarding the oil fields at Rumaila and watching over captured Iraqi soldiers.

Collins, a former Ghurka, seems to have revelled in his reputation as a hard man. In one interview he explained how he and his men had paid a visit to Ba'ath party members who were supposedly "threatening people who cooperated with us". He boasted that "one man found that a shot through his kitchen floor somehow helped him remember where his weapon was hidden".

Now, on the heels of the accusations of serious mistreatment of Iraqi civilians, the MoD has decided to launch a wide-ranging investigation into Collins' command of his regiment, including the suicide of 18-year old soldier Paul Cochrane in Armagh in 2001. The investigation will be into the "military environment" of the RIR in which, it is alleged, an "extreme culture of bullying" operated and was tolerated by Collins. The Guardian newspaper reported last week that the a former chaplain of the regiment had made an official complaint against Lt Colonel Collins, alleging "unprofessional and inappropriate behaviour", but that nothing was done at the time.

The RIR is, of course, notorious in the Six Counties. Its previous incarnation was as the Ulster Defence Regiment, whose habitual brutality, sectarianism and close relationship between many of its members and loyalist paramilitaries made it, along with the Paras, amongst the most loathed of all the British regiments. Indeed, the loyalist mass murderer Michael Stone has revealed recently that he was a member of the regiment and two years ago some of its soldiers were photographed posing proudly in front of the loyalist Drumcree flag.

Collins' supporters in the media have reacted furiously to the suggestion that their man may not after all be the dashing hero of their imagination. The allegations were made by an "insolent" US soldier motivated by "jealousy" said one, and anyway the beaten official was only a "Ba'athist thug", so presumably deserved it. Another strand claims that, in being an Ulsterman rather than a pukka Brit, Collins' glamorous image and high profile within the British media has attracted resentment from the true-blue public-school Sandhurst types within the MoD who decided that he needs to learn his place.

Whilst this may all be rather silly, it does nevertheless seem that there could be another agenda within the MoD regarding Lt Colonel Collins, which may or may not be related to the recent news that the three battalions of the RIR, based in Holywood, Armagh and Omagh, are to be disbanded. The accounts of the mistreatment of Iraqi civilians will have a very familiar ring for many people in the north of Ireland. It is strange, to say the least, that it is only now that the establishment has decided to look into Collins' conduct.

But, as the writer Will Self observed last week, whatever the results of the various investigations may be, in making his much-quoted speech, Collins will always be guilty of trying to glorify and legitimise a squalid, illegal, imperialist war.

An Phoblacht
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