Torn Apart: 50 Years of the Troubles, 1969- 2019, by Ken Wharton

Torn Apart: 50 Years of the Troubles, 1969- 2019 is Ken Wharton’s latest, and perhaps greatest, scholarly work examining the half-century anniversary of this seminal period in British military history. With his usual calm eye and remorseless analysis, Ken rigorously dissects every major incident, flashpoint and calamity and brings them bang up to date with new insights, fresh evidence and insider-analysis, from the blokes who were ‘there on the ground’ at the time. His many contributors’ range from retired RUC detectives to ‘army-bods’ of all ranks, to reformed ‘players’ from both sides of the sectarian divide, and NHS nurses, civilian casualties, witnesses and perpetrators alike. They all have one thing in common: they are impeccably qualified to comment because they were there and deeply involved at the time.

But what makes this book truly special and unlike any others is not just the words but the pictures. For the first time The Belfast Telegraph has opened up its world-renowned ‘Troubles’ Gallery’ to a private author and kindly granted Ken permission to use over 100 of its most iconic, celebrated and moving images from its archives. Many of these pictures have never been published before and show the heroism and horror of life in the province during its darkest hours and defining moments, on the precipice of life and death. In the pictures you see the people of Northern Ireland at their best and worst. One common denominator stands out: it is always the soldiers you see – contrary to the IRA propaganda of the time – ‘cleaning the mess up’, saving lives whilst putting their own at risk, and pulling the injured from bomb-blasts, car-wrecks, violent riots and all manner of mayhem. The pictures don’t lie and say far more than even an accomplished author like Ken’s words ever can.

Torn Apart opens with a heart-stopping account of 14th August 1969, the day widely accepted as the true beginning of the Troubles due to the war-like violence it unleashed. By the end of that day an angelic 9yr old altar-boy lay dead in his bed due to stray rounds exchanged in a vicious gun-battle with IRA gunmen and RUC officers, multiple firefights and incredibly violent riots erupted on city streets and the whole province was alight with several dead. The Royal Victoria Hospital was overflowing with casualties and about to acquire the unwanted distinction of becoming the world’s premier treatment-centre for gunshot and blast wounds. The RUC would acquire an equally unwanted distinction and become officially recognised by international observers as the most dangerous police force in the world in which to serve by 1983. After this calamitous day there was no going back and a 30 year hell and ocean of blood awaited.

All of the big events and major players are covered in startling detail and nothing is left out. We get an intimate look at each terrorist outrage from The Kingsmill Massacre to the Omagh bombing, from The Miami Showband shootings to Warrenpoint, to Enniskillen, Lord Mountbatten’s assassination, Warrington and everything in between. We are given an exhaustive chronological tour of the inner-workings of the IRA, the rise to power of ‘the young Turks’ and the brutal betrayals and backstabbing – amongst themselves – as they fought each other for dominance. The same goes for the inner workings of the Loyalist terror machine and Ken pulls no punches in his remorseless analysis of UVF/UFF feuds, assassinations and murderous squabbles.

It must be admitted – however reluctantly and uncomfortably – that occasionally the IRA acted with a cunning strategy that involved boldness and reckless courage, such as in rare, well-planned, frontal attacks on professional soldiers. Yet it must equally be stated that more often than not they simply behaved as mentally deranged, power-crazed psychopaths who executed and tortured completely innocent civilians from their own communities, in a warped blood-lust. And the same goes for the Loyalist side and their insanely cruel deeds against their own. It is here that Ken gets really forensic and the lengthy horrors he reveals about IRA interrogations in kangaroo-courts, and the Loyalist ‘Shankill Butchers’ and their infamous ‘Romper rooms’ are not for the faint-hearted and wouldn’t be out of place in a Stephen King novel. And yet they happened, undeniably.

As ever, Ken’s book is chockablock with warm stories amongst the horror and he manages to capture the human faces and often-untold stories of those involved that prick your conscience and make you feel their loss all the more. The victims are all too-often the innocent, the gullible and the naïve. People lured away by softly spoken assassins posing as friends, or finding themselves walking down the wrong road at the wrong hour and the taxi-driver from hell demanding they consent to a lift home.

One such story occurred in 1973 when an innocent young Polish woman living in the UK fell in love with her Irish Catholic house-painter, whom was brutally murdered by the UFF for no other reason than his religion. Not comprehending or fully understanding the history, she visited the RUC in person and demanded action, before naïvely announcing she would conduct her own investigation. She visited his Lower Falls hometown, began asking questions, and was shortly after stabbed 24 times, to death, by a UFF murder gang. She was a 24yr old single mother whose only crime was innocence. There are many such ‘hidden histories’ in Ken’s book and he is to be commended for digging them out.

Although Ken’s books are unashamedly ‘Pro-squaddie’, by his own admission, and his heart clearly lies in his copious and thorough military accounts, he nonetheless does an impressively objective job of telling other players’ stories. Torn Apart dwells heavily on the RUC’s impressive contribution and he gives moving, accurate and powerful testimony to the unbearable burden they had to shoulder, never being able to switch off and having to literally take the Troubles home with them, as they lived in the stricken communities themselves. The RUC lost hundreds of officers and thousands to crippling injury and suffered losses on a par almost with the military – something which is often overlooked.

Ken gives equal and objective weight to terrorist atrocities on both sides of the divide and doesn’t shy away from calling out Loyalist crimes when they’re as heinous as IRA ones. In fact, he has bent over so far to be fair to either side that he has undoubtedly upset some extreme Loyalist elements and I think it’s highly laudable that he has shown his personal courage in repeatedly visiting Northern Ireland and uncovering these ‘secret histories’ and treading where other journalists fear to go. He manages to reach the unreachable and speak of the unspeakable because of the rock-solid credibility and community-endorsements he carries with him as his calling card. Ken was an infantryman in a top regiment and completed tours of NI at the very height of the Troubles; today he is a top journalist and writes of those times with an impeccable honesty that is rare. And that is why he’s written 12 books and counting on this subject alone and the players of the day – whether friend or foe – are queuing up to talk to him.

In an age where the establishment appears poised to abandon its own soldiers to historical investigations stretching back decades, IRA suspects are given ‘comfort-letters’ whilst Troubles veterans grimly await the knock on the door from the PSNI. Torn Apart is a searing, significant and timely read. Ken Wharton has called it right again.

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