‘What shall we do with the drunken sailors?’ The big question facing Helensburgh
TENSIONS ARE RISING BETWEEN THE TOWNSFOLK OF HELENSBURGH AND THE ROYAL NAVY MARINES STATIONED THERE TO GUARD TRIDENT. PETER SWINDON VISITED THE TOWN TO INVESTIGATE THE TRUTH ABOUT CLAIMS OF ALCOHOL-FUELLED VIOLENCE
IT is the picturesque commuter town which sits on the banks of the Clyde six miles along the shoreline from a naval base which houses the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent and more than 500 elite Royal Marines Commandos tasked with protecting the nation’s atomic arsenal.
Helensburgh residents have lived with a military presence at Faslane since the Second World War but the relationship with personnel who call Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde their home has not always been plain sailing – and recent incidents have led to rising tensions.
CCTV footage emerged last week of a brawl between locals and navy personnel in the Logie Baird – a pub named after the Helensburgh-born engineer who invented television. It led to claims by the owner Cara Nikolic that this is “the latest in a long line of incidents”.
Her husband was recently cleared of assaulting two navy personnel in a separate clash after it was shown he was acting in self-defence – but the legal bill ran into the thousands and the couple called for crunch talks with top brass at the base after the latest incident in the Logie Baird.
Cara Nikolic is from a military family – her father was an English submariner – and she employs people who are married to navy personnel so she is well aware of the longstanding links between Helensburgh and the base. However, she’s had enough of drunken sailors causing trouble.
She said: “They go out in big groups and when they’re drunk they can turn on you. I’m not rattling cages for the sake of it. We need help and it has to come from within the base. All I’m saying is stop misbehaving.”
Concerns raised by the owners of the Logie Baird led to local SNP MP Brendan O’Hara sending a letter to base commander Commodore Mark Gayfer calling for a crackdown on anti-social behaviour in Helensburgh.
O’Hara said: “It is essential that publicans, restaurant owners and the residents of the town are reassured that such behaviour will not be tolerated by the MoD or the civilian authorities.”
HMNB Clyde sent Richard Phillips to meet licensees in Helensburgh last week. Phillips is a senior navy figure who claimed to be responsible for a 64 per cent drop in incidents involving military personnel at licensed premises in Portsmouth, which is home to another major naval base.
It is understood some publicans sought to play down recent incidents at the meeting and turned down Phillips’s offer to ban personnel from drinking in their bars, fearing a fall in profits.
The town is conflicted. They need the military personnel to drive the local economy but they are unhappy with the ugly fallout, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights.
Manager of The Ashton bar, Jane McMurdo, said: “If there was a blanket ban the publicans would be up in arms because they wouldn’t get as much money coming in. If the base shut down, Helensburgh would shut down.”
The barman at The Commodore on the banks of the Clyde, who gave his name as Mark, said: “More often than not the sailors fight among themselves. There’s always an alpha male in the group and the men try to outdo each other.”
When navy personnel drink to excess in Helensburgh, taxi drivers can also bear the brunt. One cabbie, who asked not to be named, said: “I’ve had trouble with drunkenness, threats of violence and verbal abuse. Marines are the worst. They think they can do what they like and have no respect. There’s very much a ‘ them and us’ attitude.”
Another taxi driver, who also wants to remain anonymous, added: “They’re often drunk and you’ll get lip about the fares. It costs £15 to get to the base after 10 o’clock so they’ll call you a thief or whatever – but there’s no denying they’re good for business. If they stopped coming into town I’d be out of a job.”
The naval base at Faslane is a town in its own right. It employs almost 7,000 people, with around 2,000 of them living on site in high-rise accommodation blocks. That number will increase to 8,200 by 2022 after the UK Government pledged to make Faslane home to all Royal Navy submarines.
Norman Muir, chairman of Helensburgh Community Council, is keen to promote integration and ensures the 20-strong community council has four places reserved for people connected with the base. “We actively engage with the naval community,” Muir said. “We want to make people feel at home here. After all, they are British, the same as us. The members from the naval community want exactly the same as us – good schools, shops, transport, parking. I’d say they are pretty well-integrated and they bring great benefit to the local economy.”
Anne Mitchell, who has run gift store Anne of Loudounville for 30 years, said: “The base is a plank of the
If there was a blanket ban the publicans would be up in arms because they wouldn’t get as much money coming in. If the base shut down, Helensburgh would shut down
business. There are a lot of fine people in the navy and I’ve nothing but good things to say about them.”
Muir, a former army officer who has lived in Helensburgh for 20 years, insisted talk of trouble in its pubs has been “blown out of proportion”.
“The ones that do cause trouble are dealt with severely. Military justice can actually be more severe because the military guards its public reputation jealously. You may not hear about it but troublemakers are dealt with.”
Johnny Rapallini’s Clyde Bar is painted with a huge Saltire which can be seen from the shoreline – and probably from the submarines carrying Trident nuclear weapons which are regularly towed along the Clyde to Faslane. The owner describes his pub as a “Yes bar” and regularly hosts pro-independence groups and meetings of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He is opposed to Trident but even he doesn’t want to see the back of the base. Rapallini said: “We don’t have a bad relationship with the base. We get some business from it. I hope the base is always there, but as a Scottish military base without nuclear weapons.”
The Sunday Herald asked to speak to Commodore Gayfer but he was unavailable. A Royal Navy spokesman confirmed representatives from the base attended the Pubwatch meeting in Helensburgh on August 1 which he said was “centred around how to reduce instances of unacceptable behaviour in local licensed establishments”.
He said: “Such behaviour is far from being exclusive to service personnel, indeed of approximately 50 people currently banned from establishments only five are from the Armed Forces. The vast majority of publicans welcome members of the Armed Forces in their establishments.
“The Royal Navy Police were very happy to offer their help and insight in identifying ways to reduce instances of anti-social behaviour. The Royal Navy takes allegations of unacceptable behaviour extremely seriously and will continue to work with the local community and partners to offer reassur- ance and to help Helensburgh remain a safe and enjoyable area to visit.”
The Sunday Herald asked to speak to local police but a spokeswoman for Police Scotland said she “cannot facilitate any interview request at this time”. In a prepared statement, the area commander, Chief Inspector Paul Robertson, said: “Police Scotland serves a diverse range of people across Helensburgh and Balloch, including members of our military personnel, who do socialise locally and play an integral part in the community. We will continue to work with our partners, including local licensees, to ensure the areas of Helensburgh and Balloch remain safe and enjoyable places to visit and socialise.
“As with any other community, we do of course experience isolated incidents of anti-social behaviour, which are dealt with swiftly and robustly by our officers.”
Tension is rising between residents and navy personnel in Helensburgh, including in the Logie Baird pub where CCTV footage, above right, emerged last week of a brawl between locals and sailors from nearby Faslane