British army to aid Northern Ireland’s coronavirus fight despite tensions

DUBLIN — British soldiers with medical expertise are being deployed into Northern Ireland’s hospitals, a sensitive move previously avoided because of opposition from the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party.

Health Minister Robin Swann announced Wednesday that the U.K. Ministry of Defence has approved the deployment of more than 100 army medical technicians “in aid of the civil authority” to combat COVID-19.

Swann said he hopes that no anti-British extremists would exploit the deployment of soldiers to score political points “or even to target any individual within our health service,” particularly given the depths of the medical crisis.

The last time a Northern Ireland government sought British military aid to quell an emergency was in August 1969, when rioting between British Protestant and Irish Catholic communities overwhelmed the U.K. region’s mostly Protestant police force — the opening act of three decades of bloodshed dubbed “The Troubles” that claimed 3,700 lives.

That 1969 army deployment inspired the rise of a new Irish Republican Army faction, the Provisional IRA, committed to attacking those troops and overthrowing Northern Ireland by force. As a result, British soldiers operated on its streets for 37 years but ended their police support role in 2007, following the Provisional IRA’s 2005 disarmament and Sinn Féin’s formal 2007 acceptance of police authority. 

Nonetheless, about 5,000 troops are still garrisoned today in Northern Ireland given it remains part of the U.K. Those forces train for deployment overseas, not locally.

This continued low-key presence of British forces irritates some Irish nationalists who want to see Northern Ireland leave the U.K. and join the Republic of Ireland. Splinter IRA factions remain committed to attacking British security personnel, including an effort earlier this month along the Irish border to shoot at what turned out to be a civilian helicopter.

‘Sensitivities’

Despite these tensions, Swann initially requested British military aid in April as Northern Ireland’s pandemic death toll topped 100.

Sinn Féin at that time successfully appealed to the British government in London not to allow this, arguing it would inflame what it called community “sensitivities.”

That death toll today is nearing 1,700, including a further 22 deaths confirmed Wednesday. Northern Ireland’s hospitals have become increasingly overwhelmed, with paramedics sometimes forced to keep treating coronavirus patients outside in ambulances because no beds are available.

Swann, the sole Ulster Unionist Party member of the Northern Ireland Executive, said he hoped nobody would seek to stop the use of British forces in pandemic-fighting measures. When asked, he declined to specify how they would be used.

“It’s not to make any political point. It’s to provide critical support to people working in our health services who are under pressure,” he said.

Sinn Féin’s co-leader of the executive, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, signalled that her party had dropped opposition to use of the British military against the virus.

“Our priorities are to save lives, keep people safe and protect the health service. We do not rule out any measures,” she said. “Any effort to make the threat posed by COVID-19 into a green and orange issue is divisive and a distraction.”

The COVID-19 crisis has fueled wider tensions in the executive, a cross-community government that forms a cornerstone of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

The unity government requires Protestant unionists — committed to maintaining Northern Ireland’s political union with Britain — to share power with Sinn Féin, among them figures once involved in Provisional IRA bombings and shootings.

But since its revival in early 2020, the coalition has frequently clashed over pandemic policy, with each side accusing the other of recklessness. The main Protestant-backed party, the Democratic Unionists, has often resisted lockdown arguments in favor of keeping businesses open. Sinn Féin in June openly flouted lockdown rules to stage a mass public funeral for a Provisional IRA member.

Before the Provisionals called a lasting ceasefire in 1997, Sinn Féin openly supported attacks on British forces and civilians who supported them and described them as “occupiers.” The IRA mounted attacks on medical facilities as part of this campaign, including a 1991 bomb attack on the military wing of Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast. 

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