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Last Updated: Friday, 6 October 2006, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
History of sacrifice and controversy
By Julian O'Neill
BBC Newsline reporter

Withdrawn from active service in September, the three home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment - with 3,000 personnel - will formally disband next July.

This will end a service record unparalleled in the history of the British army.

Royal Irish Regiment
The RIR headquarters is St Patrick's Barracks, Ballymena, Co Antrim
Together with its predecessor the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), the so-called home service battalions will have completed 36 years of unbroken operational service. It is a period marked by great sacrifice, but also controversy.

To many Protestants these soldiers were heroes whose loyal service was often unsung. During the Troubles they were part of the frontline against the IRA and took hundreds of casualties.

But many Catholics had their judgement coloured by a minority of soldiers who had over-lapping membership of loyalist paramilitary groups and committed sectarian attacks, including murder.

The Royal Irish Regiment was formed by the amalgamation of the UDR and the Royal Irish Rangers on 1 July 1992. The decision was presented as a purely military one, but by then the UDR was regarded with deep suspicion by many nationalists and the Irish government.

Ranks

Unionists protested and argued the level of criminality was greatly exaggerated given more than 60,000 people had served in the ranks at one time or another.

At its end, only 3% of the UDR's members were Catholic. Many UDR soldiers went on to serve in the Royal Irish and this helped explain why nationalist ill-will carried from one regiment to the other.

The UDR dated back to 1970 and had full-time and part-time soldiers who provided back-up cover for the police in much of Northern Ireland. Key duties included patrolling and manning checkpoints.

A total of 210 members were murdered, the majority of them killed off-duty when they were easier targets. A further 64 were murdered after they had left the regiment.

By the time the UDR had evolved into the RIR, the Troubles were drawing to an end. Seven RIR soldiers were murdered between its formation and the IRA ceasefire in 1994.

Currently, until next July, the RIR consists of home service battalions for service within Northern Ireland and a general service battalion, liable for posting anywhere in the world.

It is the general service battalion which has seen action in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan and will remain in service, continuing the name, tradition and memory of those who will pass into history.


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