I was just about to go out on patrol in South Armagh on a breezy, showery day on August 27, 1979 when we were told that a member of the Royal Family has been assassinated by a bomb in the Republic.
Initially, we didn’t know who it was nor the fact that others had been killed and, cynically, most of us were more concerned with hunting down the terrorists on our doorstep in ‘‘Bandit Country’’.
But a few minutes’ reflection painted a much more sinister picture: the Provisional IRA had struck right at the heart of the British ‘‘war machine’’.
That was worryingly impressive.
Then, a few hours later, we heard a distant bang, then another that rocked us to the core. Two bombs had killed 18 of our comrades in a brutally capable attack at nearby Warrenpoint which was obviously co-ordinated with the earlier murder.
Sickeningly, the IRA later pointed out that they had ‘‘executed’’ Lord Louis Mountbatten and then taken revenge upon the Parachute Regiment for Bloody Sunday.
A national hero, a colonel, a major and a platoon of Paratroopers had been eviscerated – and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it.
Now, this is 40 years ago and things have changed – yet the memories are deeply potent.
The British Establishment still runs scared of those murders, the 1984 Brighton bombing and the mortaring of 10 Downing Street in 1991, because they demonstrate that small numbers of twistedly brave men can destroy not just soldiers’ and policemen’s lives, but their own as well.
And it’s this dread that the EU and Ireland have exploited ruthlessly.
Theresa May’s rudderless regime only had to hear that the Good Friday Agreement was under threat, the Taoiseach only had to hint that the men of violence were circling and the whole of Downing Street turned to blancmange.
It was almost as if any challenge to the Backstop or the utterly repellent idea of Ulster’s being divorced from the rest of the UK would cause a rash of bombs and assassin’s bullets across Whitehall.
So that’s why the intervention of Simon Byrne, the newly appointed Chief Constable of the PSNI, on the Today programme on Thursday was so interesting. He spoke well but very carefully, pointing out that there had been six attempts to kill his officers in recent months, that the political vacuum in Ulster was a gift to violent extremists and that attitudes were hardening.
But, despite the Remain-leaning BBC trying its best to tempt him, he would not agree that the hard border issue was behind the upsurge in trouble. Indeed, he told us that he had received no intelligence at all that Brexit was at the root of recent violence.
Yet, he did agree that his officers would be especially vulnerable if they had to set up and protect hard border crossing points, but he went on to make the extraordinary claim that policing in Northern Ireland was not very different to England.
Really? I’ve seen no parts of this country where officers are always armed, where police stations look like forts and officers drive around in armoured vehicles – but that’s routine in Ulster
The Chief Constable’s comments were nakedly opportunistic and, perhaps unwittingly, supported the fearmongering but they stood in clear contrast to David Davis’s comments – in his capacity as former Brexit Secretary – on the same programme.
He was riposting to the hint of hope that had emerged from the meeting between Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel where she had challenged the PM to design a solution to the Irish Border question within the next 30 days – allowing, perhaps, the withdrawal deal to be re-jigged,
But Davis made the point that a 270-page document had been drawn up by customs and treaty experts which was overseen by two Remainer ministers which gave a number of permutations to how a virtual order might be created without any ‘‘hard’’ infrastructure.
Yet, apparently, this document had never been examined in any detail. Why not? Well, I’ll tell you why not: the EU want to beat a timorous UK around the head with a threat of proxy violence.
That became even starker when the latest rumour about Jeremy Corbyn was leaked. It is suggested that in a forthcoming vote of no confidence in the Government, the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition might call in some favours from his old pals in Sinn Fein and get their MPs to vote alongside him – even though they have always declined to vote in the past. It’s a disgraceful rumour – and it probably is just a rumour – but it plays wonderfully well to the threat of violence.
Now, the brinkmanship of Downing Street chief of staff Dominic Cummings that Mr Johnson is articulating is bold–- but boldness needs to be backed by real courage. That strategy will be under fire from Germany, France, Ireland on the whole of Project Fear over the next few weeks: do you suppose our Prime Minister will have the guts to see it through?
Patrick Mercer is a former Conservative MP. As a soldier, he served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.