Page last updated at 13:01 GMT, Thursday, 27 November 2008

Irish swell ranks of UK military

By Michael Buchanan
BBC News

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Lance Sergeant Eddie Rooney from Dublin on why he joined up

The British military is experiencing a large rise in recruits from the Irish Republic, figures obtained by BBC Radio 4's PM programme have shown.

They reveal a four-fold increase in military personnel from the Irish Republic during the past three years.

Between 2005 and 2006, just 3% of recruits entering the military through its recruitment centres in Northern Ireland came from the Republic.

The figure so far this year is 14%, and officers believe it will rise further.

Lt Col Dick Rafferty, who runs the Northern Ireland recruitment centres where most of the southern Irish recruits join up, says several factors are driving enlistment.

They include the weakening economy in the Irish Republic and the sheer number of opportunities a career in the British military offers.

THE RISE IN IRISH RECRUITS
2005-06: 3%
2006-07: 4.5%
2007-08: 10%
2008-present: 14%

Figures show British military recruits through Northern Ireland offices

He also says the reduction in tensions in Northern Ireland itself has been crucial.

"This is a generation who are less familiar with the British army supporting the policing operation of the north," he says.

"They are more familiar with the wider efforts of the British army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where previously [the troubles in] Northern Ireland informed the mindsets of the last generation, that is less the case with this upcoming generation."

Changing attitudes

Michael Godman, 19, from County Offaly, is one of those who would like to join the British military, hopefully to become a sniper.

He says he wanted to be a soldier from a young age and it was an easy decision to approach the British rather than the Irish military.

"The Irish Defence Force - as the name suggests - is a defence force, it's not an army," he says.

Michael Godman
Michael Godman, 19, hopes to become a sniper in the British army

"It's for purely domestic use. It simply can't compare with the opportunities on offer with the British army."

Michael is one of 10 potential recruits being assessed at the Palace Barracks in Belfast this week, six of whom came from the Irish Republic.

Ciaran Curran, 23, says he wants to join to experience a combat environment.

"A friend of mine joined a couple of years ago and he was out in Afghanistan this year with the Royal Irish Regiment. He got his action and I want mine," he says.

There is, of course, a long tradition of Irish people serving in the British military.

A third of the Duke of Wellington's army at the Battle of Waterloo for instance was reputedly made up of Irishmen.

But there has been a decades-old stigma in many Irish communities about serving with the British.

Many Irish veterans of World War I and II received no recognition on their return home, and those that died were in many cases simply forgotten.

Attitudes are changing.

Funeral of fallen soldier
Mourners in Westport remember fallen Royal Marine Robbie McKibben

In Castlebar in County Mayo a new memorial was unveiled last month to honour those who died in various conflicts since World War I and local historians are trying to discover as much information as they can about the soldiers.

But scarcely can there have been a more public symbol of the new attitude than the reaction of the people of Westport in County Mayo to the death of Robert McKibben.

The Royal Marine was killed in Afghanistan earlier this month and buried in Westport on Monday amid incredible scenes.

Six Royal Marines marched for several hundred yards through the town beside his coffin, something that would not have been tolerated in the Irish Republic just a few years ago.

There are, of course, many people who are not happy to see Irishmen join the British army.

One recruit said his father had told him in no uncertain terms that he would hide his son's career from his friends.

The political party Sinn Fein certainly does not approve of the trend.

IRISH DEFENCE FORCE FACTS
10,500 members
Mainly involved in UN/EU-led operations in Chad, Kosovo, Lebanon and Bosnia
Last combat death: Lebanon, 1999

"I can understand that the realisation that they won't be asked to kill young Catholic people on the streets of Belfast might be less of a deterrent to people from the south," says MEP Bairbre de Brun.

"But if they think it through, they ought to know that the role they will be asked to play in Iraq or Afghanistan won't be a positive one either."

But, for a growing number of young people in the Irish Republic, the conflict in Northern Ireland has been consigned to history.

The British armed forces have the potential to offer them adventure and opportunities they feel simply cannot be matched by their own country's military.

PM is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1700 GMT on 27 November 2008.

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