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Photos from the Northern Irish Tour That Led Up to 1992's Coalisland Riots

Stuart Griffiths was posted to County Tyrone as a military photographer. Some weeks into the tour, a young British soldier lost both his legs to an IRA explosive device, triggering the Coalisland riots.

by Stuart Griffiths
Jun 23 2015, 1:45pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It was 1992. I'd just turned 20 and was back in Aldershot with the 5 Airborne Brigade garrison when we were given orders to prepare for an emergency tour of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. What exactly the "emergency" was, no one really knew outside the operations room. But I was well aware that plenty of IRA activity was going down, with Tyrone being an IRA stronghold.

I'd recently been trained as a military photographer at the Northern Ireland Photographic Assistant course in Wolverhampton. This new role meant taking photographs of IRA terrorists—or "players"—for intelligence purposes prior to patrols going out. It was my second tour of the province and I wasn't happy being sent to a place where it always pours with rain, especially after returning from a three month tour of Kenya with an all-over-body tan.

Prior to deployment to Northern Ireland, all military personnel are sent to the Tin City in Lydd, Kent for specialized training. Now I was a unit photographer, so my training was different: I trained in civilian clothes and learned pairs fire and maneuver with guns, just in case I ended up in a shoot-out at an illegal Provisional IRA vehicle check point. I was taught how to hold and fire a handgun confidently by a scary looking SAS man called "The Grey Wolf."

We flew low level by Chinook all the way from the UK mainland, and by the time we arrived in County Tyrone most of us were feeling ill. It was also pissing down rain. We all had to get into a fire position around the helicopter, so I decided to try and get a few frames on my Nikon camera. "Put the fucking camera away, Griffiths," a sergeant ordered. I knew then that this was going to be a testing tour for me, the designated photographer who wasn't allowed to use his photographic equipment.

My day-to-day routine was mostly spent in the operations room, making tea and hoovering. I'd occasionally get sent on a covert pick-up and drop off, meaning I had to carry a gun in my jeans while driving a civilian vehicle. I'd take a Nikon camera with a 200mm lens, should I come across any known IRA "players" whom I could photograph for intelligence briefings.

This undercover work didn't last long; it was far more difficult covertly taking photos of known terrorists in the rural badlands than in the country's city centers. Instead, I was sent out with five-day foot patrols, carrying heavy ECM equipment—the stuff used to disrupt and jam signals for remote improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

I didn't spot any IRA players who I could photograph on the long arduous patrols, and my morale was slowly being disintegrated by all the heavy lifting and repeated electric shocks to the balls from the many farmland electric fences. I began photographing the Paratroopers instead, just to keep me sane. I'd come up with an idea loosely based around a "day in the life," which my superior officers approved of at the time. It was to be a visual record of this emergency tour.

At first, everyone seemed OK with me taking photos; and then certain officers began to make it difficult for me: they would take any opportunity to get me on "remedial physical training," carrying a 30Ib "Wombat" anti-aircraft shell around.

I was in the operation room one day, reading a newspaper article suggesting that we were all in Tyrone to bolster the Tory vote for the 1992 General Election, when suddenly I heard the panic-stricken words, "Contact, wait out," over the radio network. A patrol had been involved in an explosion and there had been casualties. A young soldier fresh from his passing out parade had stepped on an IRA land mine in the republican stronghold of Cappagh that had blown off both his legs. Paratroopers then went on a rampage in nearby Coalisland, the TV news said, with footage of running battles on the main roads between civilians and armed Paratroopers. It progressively got worse from then on, and the clashes were responsible for the only time in the history of the Northern Irish Troubles that a senior British army officer was disciplined.

Living in our Cookstown base was like being sentenced to prison. No one could leave, unless heavily armed. When you got any time off you were allowed two cans of beer and could sit in front of the TV spinning out from your quota. I was getting books sent over from hippy girlfriends in Manchester—stuff like William Burroughs's Naked Lunch—and hidden inside the pages were ready-rolled joints, which would have offered some welcome relief, but weren't exactly easy to smoke while confined to a security forces base.

After some time there, the pay clerk handed me my papers to either renew my terms of engagement, or sign off and become a free man. I no longer wanted to be a Paratrooper, so I signed off. It was then that the skies opened up with shit—I was treated like some kind of traitor for leaving the brotherhood.

Everyone on base was then ordered to get their equipment as the BIKINI alert state had risen to "Black Alpha" (now known as Black Special), which meant there was an increased likelihood of an attack. Everyone was briefed to "flood" the area, and I was placed on guard duty outside the gates with sandbags and a general-purpose machine gun. I decided to take photographs of the Paratroopers pouring out past me. At last, I thought, some action to photograph.

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I shot two rolls of black and white film, but had to pass the guardroom to get back into the base. Here, I was ordered to hand over my camera film. I had to protest that it was my own film, but the guard-duty sergeant just snarled, "I could not give two fucks, Griff. You're just a number here—you're not out yet. So hand it over, you little cunt, or you're going to be quick-marched to jail."

I've always wondered where those rolls of film ended up. Years ago, after repeated FOI requests, someone working in the Ministry of Defense told me that I was wasting my time trying to find them because they had probably ended up in skip with most of the other once "top secret" photographs from the province. There's nothing in the National Archives, or in the Imperial War Museum.

The photos you see above and below are all that I have left from that emergency tour of County Tyrone, the tour where I decided that I was done with being a Paratrooper.

See more of Stuart's work on stuartgriffiths.net, and more of his photos from the 1992 tour below.