Decorated Iraq soldier Doug Beattie's formidable challenge as new leader of Northern Ireland's UUP
His courage and determination will be tested again as he seeks to make the party fit for the 21st century
One Iraqi soldier had already been killed when a concrete block was dropped on his head. His two comrades looked on in terror fearing the crowd of 2,000 fellow Iraqis would turn on them next.
It was shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Doug Beattie had just witnessed the murder in the centre of Al Madina and knew something “absolutely wrong” was about to happen.
Using his rifle butt, elbows, and on one occasion his bayonet, he pushed, shoved and jabbed his way through the mob to save the two men.
It was an extraordinary act of bravery for which he received a deserved decoration. But, today, the depth of the challenge he faces as the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party is potentially more daunting.
The party that ruled Northern Ireland for most of the 20th century finds itself in a politically barren land, bereft of all Westminster MPs, only a handful of representatives in the Stormont Assembly and a shrinking support base.
Mr Beattie, 55, is the sixth UUP leader since David Trimble, the formidable architect of the Northern Ireland peace agreement who left office in 2005.
The former soldier’s endurance on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was also awarded the Military Cross for bravery, suggests the party may have settled upon someone with the resilience to resurrect its fortunes.
Unlike the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, the married father of two grown-up children has been quick to appeal to a broader base of supporters, away from the traditional religious tribalism.
“I want to make the UUP a more agile party fit for the 21st century,” he told The National. “It’s simple things that need to be done, such as attracting more women and young people and being more dynamic than we have been.”
Undeterred by the workload of overhauling the dominance of the ruling DUP, Mr Beattie – known by former army colleagues for his “extremely stubborn streak” – believes the major focus should be on preventing the UK from falling apart, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland’s ties weakening.
With Ulster’s cross-border trade threatened by the Brexit agreement and the 1998 Belfast Agreement in danger of unravelling as a result, the new UUP leader insists keeping the UK together is key.
“Unionism is going through momentous change due to mostly Brexit. For me in Northern Ireland, we have to be as inclusive as possible to try and protect the union and to create a union of people who want to live and work together.”
It is partly his experience of witnessing a country’s cohesion broken that has impelled him to take up the post. Following the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, the country tore apart along Sunni and Shia lines, much as Northern Ireland had between Roman Catholics and Protestants during the 30 years of the Troubles.
Mr Beattie was on hand to witness the Iraq blood-letting when just a few days into the invasion the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, entered the town of Al Madina, north of Basra.
Commanded by the former SAS officer Col Tim Collins, the battalion captured the town without a shot being fired, despite Saddam Hussein’s army having a large number of armoured vehicles that far outmatched the British four-ton trucks.
At first, all seemed peaceful until the rumbling of a gathering crowd drew Regimental Sgt Major Beattie to the central square.
After witnessing the death of the first soldier, Mr Beattie made the instant decision to get to the remaining pair, despite being on his own.
“I was not really thinking, I just fought through this crowd of 2,000 people with my rifle. I was pushing, hitting people with my rifle butt and once I had to jab somebody in the calf with my bayonet. I got to where they were holding these Baathists and pushed away the people doing them harm. But I suddenly realised that I was alone and thought ‘oh goodness me, what am I going to do now?’ Then, all of a sudden, like the Red Sea parting, a phalanx of British soldiers, led by a colour sergeant, just cut through the crowd like butter until they got to me and they were able to grab these hapless individuals.”
One of the Iraqi soldiers, a grey, unshaven man in his late 30s, turned to Mr Beattie with both hands together, as if in a Christian prayer of thanks, while the other, who was much younger, looked terrified.
Reflecting on his actions 18 years on, Mr Beattie knew it was extremely dangerous taking on an unruly mob close to descending into a riot.
“I knew that I had just a moment where I had the ability to calm them and that the right thing to do was to save the lives of those two individuals who were about to get killed. It was a spur of the moment decision, a strange decision and probably wasn't the right one, in a military context.”
That courage and determination, which was recognised by a Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, will certainly be tested as he seeks to make the UUP a political force once again.
Decency, argues Mr Beattie, along with the right policies, will be the starting point.
“It doesn't matter people’s religion, colour, ethnic background or their cultural identity, if you just make Northern Ireland a place where people want to live. Because you learn a lot from serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and seeing the division that you have between different groups, what that does to people and what it means when they come together.”
As the DUP lurches to less tolerant policies, the middle ground might open up for Mr Beattie’s more progressive approach. But in the coming period it may seem that wading through a crowd of 2,000 angry people was an easier path to take.
Updated: May 18, 2021 12:10 PM