Name: Roy Campbell
Student No: 1262828/1
BA in War Studies
Dissertation Supervisor: Dr Peter Neumann
The Troubles, which this project will study, refers to the period of violence that occurred in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1995, which saw what would become the British Army’s longest deployment in a combat role; Operation Banner and a conflict which consisted of three key players: the British Government, the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A) and Unionist politicians and paramilitaries, whilst also having an international dimension too.
As General Mike Jackson wrote in the operational analysis of the campaign, “That campaign is the longest to date; one of the very few waged on British soil; and one of the very few ever brought to a successful conclusion by the armed forces of a developed nation against an irregular force.” (MOD, 2006, page i) This essay shall look at how successful the British State was in Northern Ireland, in terms of curbing the levels of violence that has come to epitomise The Troubles. This will mean that we can see if the methods adopted for this conflict, can be used in any future ‘small wars’ involving British forces and could also help as a comparison piece, with the campaign “now viewed through the prism of more recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.” (Bew, 2012, p.156)
The main sources of information shall come from books written about the conflict, with additional sources coming from journal pieces, magazines and websites amongst other available means. The research will be conducted by a review and comparison of the aims of the main protagonists, in order to see if the British state was successful in its aim(s) and if not, why that was the case. This method is most appropriate as it provides a clear comparison of the aims of all those involved, the methods that each side used to prevent the other achieve a particular aim and can provide a clear-cut end answer to the question.
There are some matters that this methodology may not help to explain. This methodology does not really take into account the role of civilian actors throughout the conflict, such as influential authors, religious figures and local officials who may have helped play a role in defusing The Troubles. In addition to this, the methodology fails to take into account the individuality of the commands of the IRA and seeing if they differed in their aims or methods or the attacks that were committed by individuals within the IRA but without the approval of the IRA Army Council or a higher authority within the IRA. Nevertheless, this method seems the most valid, as it provides a comprehensive analysis of The Troubles and allows comparisons to be made as regards the strategies of the IRA and the British Government.
My hypothesis is that the ‘The British State did achieve success against the I.R.A, but not enough to achieve a decisive victory over them through military might alone and that a compromise would be required.’ Some of the possible conclusions that I believe may be reached based on the preliminary readings are as follows:
The Security forces defeated the I.R.A overtly but not decisively.
The success of the Security Forces in Ulster forced the I.R.A to attack elsewhere, indicating a large scale of success.
The success of the Security Forces forced the I.R.A to pursue political means instead of violence.
A combination of the above two.
When looking at the Northern Ireland Troubles, an important point to notice is that the literature does vary on certain issues, depending on when that particular source was written and who is writing it. Regarding the deployment of troops to the province for example, Tim Pat Coogan, who writes from the Nationalist perspective, writes in The Troubles, “The entire character of the contact between the Catholic civilian population and the army became adversely affected when certain units arrived in the north for tour of duty. This was particularly true of some Scots regiments and of the paratroopers.” (Coogan, 1996, p.127).However, this is contrasted by Marc Mulholland, who points out in his book The Longest War, that the British Army behaved in a way that was fair to both sides, even if it did not seem like that at the time: “The British Army showed no partiality to Protestant rioters, and quelled them with a stern hand” (Mulholland, 2001, p.76)
What is interesting about Tim Pat Coogan, is that Sean O’Callaghan, in his book The Informer, mentions that whilst in prison, “One of the writers recommended to them was Tim Pat Coogan, the Irish historian and nationalist author of many books on the IRA and Irish Nationalism.” (O’Callaghan, 1998, p.328), yet he is critical of his work.
One of the limitations of the literature which relates to Intelligence and Special Forces operations is that some of the information, particularly any which relates to the actions of the Special Air Service are classified and therefore unable to feature in this dissertation. This means that in terms of the secret war, only a few secondary sources, such as Mark Urban’s Big Boys Rules are available to cover this issue.
In terms of the available standpoints regarding the literature, they seem to fall into three categories; Nationalist and therefore potentially biased and supportive of the IRA such as that of Tim Pat Coogan; Loyalist and therefore but not always, supportive of the British Government’s participation in the province and a neutral viewpoint, which aims to show both sides equally, such as that of Marc Mulholland, who pointed out in his book The Longest War, that it was not necessarily true that the B-Specials, Northern Ireland’s police auxiliary force, were inherently anti-Catholic and therefore more likely to engage in violence against Catholics but that they were untrained in public disorder and riot control, explaining their perceived overreaction during August 1969. This viewpoint seems to be backed up by the Scarman Report of 1972, Violence and Civil Disturbances in Northern Ireland in 1969, who wrote that “the general case of a partisan force co-operating with Protestant mobs to attack Catholic people is devoid of substance, and we reject it utterly.” (Scarman, 1972)
The spectrum of the literature is quite large, ranging from very jingoistic viewpoints from either the nationalist or loyalist perspective at either end of the spectrum to academic and therefore generally fact based sources available, with a very limited availability of primary sources.
The trouble before The Troubles:
The Troubles in Northern Ireland have their roots long before the period that is being looked at in this question. The earliest trouble between the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority go as far back as 1609, when “settlers from England and Scotland filtered into Ulster, altering the ethnic balance and complicating the religious and political mix.” (Gillespie, 2013) in the Plantation of Ulster. This soon spilled into violence, leading to the Confederate War of 1641-1652, when “Irish Catholics [fought] against Protestant English and Scots” (Plant, 2012) and the Williamite war of 1689–1691, both of which resulted in victories for the Protestants.
As time passed, stricter penal laws were passed, which guaranteed the dominance of the British Protestants in politics by curtailing the legal, religious and political rights of anyone who did not follow the Anglican Church of Ireland, the state church.
This does not mean that The Troubles are based on a religious issue. The Troubles were fought over two differing forms of nationalism rather than any religious differentiation. Religion was used as a way to separate the two communities. The Catholic minority, for a large part, favoured the Irish Republican cause of Irish unification while the Protestant majority, who formed a vast majority of Loyalists, favoured Unionism.
Home Rule, a form of limited Irish self-government, had been considered since the 1880s, due to the influence of the Irish Parliamentary Party. This sowed further seeds of discontent, as Unionists, mostly Protestants, worked against either self-government or independence for Ireland. This was because, Home Rule, meant to Unionists, most of whom were concentrated in Ulster, that their future would be uncertain in an overwhelmingly Catholic country dominated by the Roman Catholic Church; “in the words of one MP, that “‘home rule’ in Ireland would prove to be ‘Rome Rule’.”(Stewart, A.T.Q., 1967, p.82) This paved the way for what became the Home Rule crisis and it was against this background that the Ulster Volunteers under Edward Carson were formed in 1912, the first armed group of the crisis which was closely followed by the formation of the Irish Volunteers. The Ulster Volunteers, were determined to block Home Rule, by force if necessary, whilst the Irish Volunteers wanted to see Home Rule come into effect.
On the 24th of April 1916, Easter Monday, the Easter Rising occurred. This was an armed insurrection against the British Government by Irish Republicans, “at a time when Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” (National Library of Ireland, 2006), which had the goals of ending British rule in Ireland, secession from the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and establishing an independent Irish Republic. This occurred whilst Great Britain was stretched fighting in the First World War. Most of the fighting took place in Dublin, where “by Friday 28th April, the 1,600 rebels (more had joined during the week) were facing 18-20,000 soldiers.” (BBC, 2014) with skirmishes, if they can be called that, occurring in the counties of Meath, Galway, Louth and Wexford. The rising achieved none of its aims, resulting in the subsequent Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921, which “was initiated by a small number of young, determined Irish Volunteers, known from August 1919 as the Irish Republican Army (IRA).” (BBC, 2014) This did lead to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, through the partition of Ireland.
One of the main protagonists throughout the Troubles, Sinn Fein (‘Ourselves Alone’), had been around since 1907. Back then its original goal was to see an “elected Irish Parliament in Dublin owing allegiance to the British Crown.” (Dewar, 1997, p.16) The group’s military wing, the Irish Republican Army, was at this stage engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Royal Irish Constabulary, reinforced by the “Black and Tans.” (Coogan, 1996, p.123)
In 1922 the Irish Free State Constitution Act was passed, creating “a Roman Catholic-dominated Irish Free State with the same constitutional status as either Australia or Canada. This state evolved into today’s Republic of Ireland” (Coogan, 1996, p.24). Initially, this status applied to the whole of Ireland. Northern Ireland however had the ability to opt out and, after three days under the rule of the Irish Free State, parted ways on the 9th of December 1922. What was clear from the outset, was that the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, would never accept that and would happily leave the Free State:
“MOST GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN, We, your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Senators and Commons of Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, having learnt of the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, being the Act of Parliament for the ratification of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, do, by this humble Address, pray your Majesty that the powers of the Parliament and Government of the Irish Free State shall no longer extend to Northern Ireland.” (Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, 1922)
With this Northern Ireland was left to self-govern itself, a situation which led to “the polarization of the catholic minority by the Protestant majority” (Dewar, 1997, p.17). This was worsened by the “subsequent hold over politics, culture and society enjoyed by the Ulster Unionist Party until the collapse of the Stormont administration in 1972” (Edwards, 2011, p.7) As time wore on, discrimination against Catholics was widespread, although it should be noted that the Protestant minority in the Republic of Ireland faced a similar situation. If we move into the period just prior to 1969, this was leading to a situation that would soon erupt into violence, “where in a real sense, the gerrymandering system blew up in the Unionists’ faces, bringing British troops on to the streets in 1969 and thus inaugurating the contemporary Irish Troubles.” (Coogan, 1996, p.34)
Aims of all involved:
The I.R.A’s aim remained the same from the beginning of the conflict. That aim was to get Northern Ireland removed, through the use of violence, from the United Kingdom in order for it to be brought into the Republic of Ireland and create a fully united Ireland. The strategies it used evolved over time however. As Smith points out, “The concept of limited war is useful in that it helps us to comprehend those conflicts which exist between unequal participants. This is particularly relevant to the Irish Republican case as its strategic history has largely been about how the movement has tried to circumvent the superior power of the British.” (Smith, 1995, p.3)
This has led the IRA to adopt several different strategies, such as the “Campaign of Attrition since 1974” (Bell, 1970, p.419); this is encompassed in the British Army’s official campaign analysis , described as “the end of the insurgency merged into the phase characterized by the use of terrorist tactics” (MOD,2006,p.2). Another strategy was the initial bombing campaign of the early 1970’s which saw the IRA use bombs on the mainland, notably the Birmingham Pub bombings, the M62 coach bombing and the Hyde Park and Regents Park bombings. This was adopted in order to get British public opinion to turn against continued involvement of British forces in Northern Ireland, although the fact that these sorts of attacks probably encouraged people to support the British Government’s continued involvement in the province, indicates a lack of real serious thought with regards to IRA strategy.
In a way, Loyalist aims can be summed up quite clearly. In 1969, it seems that they wanted to continue to retain the firm control they had over the Stormont government and wanted to remain out of a united Republic of Ireland. However, ironically the Loyalists would end up destroying their state by gaining British intervention into their conflict and by their unwillingness to reform and compromise: “The irony was that that, in destroying O’Neill, Ulster Unionism opened an era, uninterrupted since, of de facto administration of Northern Ireland by the very liberal establishment they had so resented. The king had fallen but the courtiers, arrayed in the Northern Ireland Office, survived and prospered. There would be no returning to the hegemony of traditional Unionism” (Mulholland, 2000, p.203).
However, that the violence was not political in nature and may have just been retaliatory should not be overlooked, given the fact that the IRA was killing Loyalists indiscriminately and that Loyalist violence started to rise after the passing of Direct Rule in 1972 and the inevitable failure to curtail IRA violence up to that point.
It is interesting to note that some Loyalists were hostile to the intervention of British troops in Northern Ireland, which is ironic given that they served the British Government to which they were supposedly loyal to, Dixon citing; “Even before the Hunt Report, there had been considerable conflict between the army and loyalists, resentful at British interference in Northern Ireland” (Dixon, 2001, p.111). The fact that the Loyalists were not willing to listen and implement advice from Westminster due to different agendas was a key reason why The Troubles, which could have been averted in 1969, occurred.
It was ironic that the way Northern Ireland behaved prior to August 1969 was like that of a police state but that it did not have enough police. Therefore when British troops were called in, “Nationalists recognised that British intervention constituted a political defeat for Unionism.” (Guelke, 1988, p.88)
What is interesting about the initial British aim is that the British initially wanted to stay as uninvolved in the province as was possible. As Wichert writes “Once the British government began to get involved, it had to learn about the region it had neglected politically since its inception.” (Wichert, 1992, p.118) It could even be said that if the British Government became involved in Northern Ireland a lot earlier, that even the events of August 1969 could have been avoided with reforms pushed through before violence had begun. However, “Hitherto the British Government had left the unionist party to rule Northern Ireland with no interference.” (Moody, 1974, p.48) Even as the crisis of 1969 was unfolding, what can be seen in Westminster is an initial reluctance to get involved in Northern Ireland.
Contrary to some of the more neo-IRA sources available, the deployment of British troops was not some initial act in a purge of Catholics and it’s quite ironic that the Army’s “initial function was the protection of Catholic families.” (Darby, 1983 ,p.27) and not the protection of the Ulster State. A sign of the ultimate failure of the British State regarding Northern Ireland could be the fact that in 1972, the Ulster State, as it was, was replaced by Direct Rule from Westminster, meaning that the aim of the British government to keep British involvement to a minimum was unsuccessful.
The International dimension:
What was notable about the conflict was the International element to it. “In 1969, America was clearly the best place for the IRA to look for guns, money and political support.” (Bishop and Mallie, 1987, p.233) A clear sign of the importance of the international dimension, particularly to the IRA, is illustrated by Sean O’Callaghan, who writes of his trip to the United States, “While in jail, I had thought periodically about going to America to try to explain the true nature of the IRA and to show how Irish America’s romantic views of the situation had helped the IRA in a real and quantifiable way, whether by their supplying of guns and money or by their application of political pressure.” (O’Callaghan, 1998, pp.408-409) Another sign of the international dimension could be seen with the smuggling of weapons into the hands of the IRA, “the most notorious of [which] were the civilian version of the military M-16-the AR 15 Armalite.” (Bell, 1970, p.373)
Another source of weapons for the IRA came from Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, who helped the IRA to wage war against the British Government. This stemmed from a desire to “boost his revolutionary credentials by assisting terrorist groups bent on destabilizing Western governments. His determination to help the IRA intensified when the British allowed bases at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire to be used by the American F–111s that bombed Tripoli in April 1986.” (Harnden, 2011) An example of the weapons which were supplied in 1985 include “300 boxes of weaponry including AK–47s, Taurus automatic pistols from Brazil, seven Soviet–made RPG–7s and three Russian DShK 12.7mm heavy machineguns.” (Harnden, 2011)
The ability to gain access to new weapons such as the “M-60’s, like the appearance of the Armalites before, had propaganda value in showing nationalists that the IRA could obtain the most up-to-date firearms” (Urban, 1992, p.33). It also allowed the IRA to expand its operations and hence keep on fighting, which may not have been the case if it had not received this support. It should be noted that prior to the deliveries of weapons, the arsenal of the IRA was not particularly impressive, with the weapons being of Second World War vintage; “The M1 Carbine and ‘greasegun’…There were Garand semi-automatic rifles, bolt-action Springfields and Lee Enfields…This motley arsenal was augmented by the odd standard NATO issue SLR stolen from the British Army.” (Bishop and Mallie, 1987, p.130)
Given that it shares the actual landmass of Ireland with Northern Ireland, the viewpoint of the Republic of Ireland should be presented here as well. According to CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet), “Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution lay claim to the 32 counties of Ireland, somewhat modified by the Irish government’s acceptance in the Anglo-Irish Agreement that any move towards unity required the agreement of a majority in Northern Ireland. The same agreement assures the Irish government a role in Northern Irish affairs, which tends to be primarily an advocacy one for Northern nationalists.” (CAIN, 1995) In August 1969, “Troops were on stand-by in the Irish Republic to assist evacuation.” (Geraghty, 1980, p.140) although some Unionists interpreted this as possible intervention by the Irish state. In terms of practical assistance to the British State however, it can be questioned as to how much the Irish Government supported the IRA; “join Irish-British military operations along the Border, which might have done much to deny PIRA its safe havens in the Republic, were never conducted.” (MOD, 2006, p.33)
A year of change: 1969 and the beginning of The Troubles
An example of the injustice in Northern Ireland can be seen in the voting system and all its irregularities. This, coupled with property demand, led to Protestants being overly favored over Catholics, leading to grievances that would eventually turn into rioting. Derry was a prime example: “In Derry City, there was still a Unionist majority on the council, although there were more Nationalist voters in one ward than Unionists in the entire city” (Bew, Gibbon and Patterson, 1995, p.9) In terms of security, even in this field, the Nationalists mostly saw Unionist domination and state oppression.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the B-Specials were viewed as tools of state oppression, as some of the actions they took led to the view that they were “little more than sectarian forces in uniform” (Mulholland, 2002, p.71) Joe Cahill describes the B-Specials as “regarded by northern protestants as their own force” (Cahill, 2002, p.31), which indicates a real view that the RUC and the B-Specials were nothing more than tools for the Loyalists to use with impunity against the Nationalists. In the field of economics, job discrimination was seen in the province, although the actual level of discrimination remains a contested topic to this day. For example, Bill Rolston highlights that the shipbuilding firm Shorts refused for years to sign a Declaration of Principle and Intent.
This declaration was meant to commit employers to pursuing fair employment. Fair employment in this case means that the religious affinity of any potential worker should not come into question. However Rolston goes on to point out that “When the firm eventually got around to signing, the FEA [Fair Employment Agency] permitted it to do so, even though its own formal investigation of the firm revealed a massive inbuilt sectarianism in the firm’s workforce.” (Rolston, 1983, p.226) Roche and Barton stress that “the reason for relative Catholic disadvantage in the job market is a complex matter and not amenable to simple explanation” (Roche and Barton, 1991, p.47). They point out that “Shorts and Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the proportions of Catholics employed are low, are located in Protestant East Belfast which Catholics perceive as hostile territory” (Roche and Barton, 1991, p.47).
The behavior of the local security forces during August 1969 has been questioned as one of the reasons why The Troubles came about. The deployment of troops indicated that “Civil disorder between the Catholic and Protestant communities had escalated to such a degree that the Northern Irish police forces were no longer capable of subduing the violence or maintaining order.” (Kennedy-Pipe, 1997, p.49). However some analysis suggests that incompetence and other administrative issues rather than a deliberate desire to crush Nationalism with overwhelming force were factors in creating this image. For one, the size of the police force made the application of public disorder control quite difficult: “By 1968, the strength of the RUC had reached 3,031, topping the old establishment for the first time, besides 180 B Specials, mobilised for full-time duty.” (Ryder, 2000, p.99) As Urban points out quite astutely, “As a medium-sized provincial police force the Royal Ulster Constabulary had lacked the means to deal with an increasingly violent nationalist insurrection and loyalist counter-violence.” (Urban, 1992, p.21)
Additionally, “there had been no coordinated public order training, protective equipment like shields and helmets was in short supply, and hastily arranged courses, based on training films borrowed from Scotland Yard, were designed for pushing and shoving good-natured, unarmed demonstrators into line-tactics that were already obsolete for Ulster.” (Ryder, 2000, p.108) From this perspective, it could be argued that the RUC and the B-Specials did all that they could, given the difficult position they were in whilst not being provided with reinforcements, partly due to the British Government’s reluctance to send them from the mainland and a lack of neighboring forces to borrow police from: in “a meeting in London between Chichester-Clark and James Callaghan, the British Home Secretary, the government minister responsible for Northern Ireland, it was said there was no question of British police being loaned to Ulster” (Ryder, 2000, p.110).
Further, they were unprepared for the scale of escalation arising from the Civil Rights campaign and had sleepwalked into The Troubles. It should also be pointed out that the: “RUC had been effectively pulled along by the strategy of tension. Their employment of armoured cars and heavy machine-guns against what they thought was republican rebellion was wildly inappropriate in the actual circumstances of communal turmoil.” (Mulholland, 2002, p.73)
The use of troops is questionable as British troops have rarely received more than a lukewarm reception from Irish nationalists. In addition to this, their presence “had militarized the Catholic ghettos – in an astounding abdication of responsibility the mainland police had refused to countenance serving in Northern Ireland-and the consequent military theatre invited a nationalist response.” (Mulholland, 2002, p.61-62) This helped provide the IRA with propaganda for the nationalist cause as it portrayed the troops as occupiers, evoking memories of things such as the Black and Tans. Furthermore, the experience of British troops can also be questioned. In terms of operational experience: “There were no real guide lines when the Army first arrived in Ulster. Those who did have experience of an internal security situation found Ulster was a far different proposition from Aden, Cyprus or Hong Kong.” (Brazilay, 1975, p.65)
A clear and somewhat humorous example of this occurred “when soldiers newly arrived in Northern Ireland unfurled a banner ordering rioters to disperse in Arabic.” (Beattie Smith, 2011, p.151) The British Army therefore brought “tried-and-tested techniques from colonial theatres in an attempt to quell the violence.” (Edwards, 2011, p.31) Whilst this may have been effective in colonial confrontations, with the British Army well equipped to fight guerilla wars thanks to experience from Malaya, Kenya and Palestine in addition to other conflicts post 1945, the lack of adaptation to Northern Ireland contributed to the increase in violence.
What is interesting to note is that “[James] Callaghan considered drafting in British police officers to relieve the army of the burden of police duties” (Dixon, 2001, p.107). The fact that one of the Nationalist complaints was against the RUC means that it is highly unlikely the Nationalist community would have been appeased by the presence of mainland British police in Northern Ireland, although the mainland police would have been more able to deal with public disorder through experience of football hooliganism on the mainland at the time and that the police were more trained for public disorder than troops.
Furthermore, if the mainland police were brought in, the chances of escalation from the IRA may have been reduced, due to the fact that to shoot unarmed British police personnel may have alienated them from some of their supporters, who may have only had an issue with the RUC and B-Specials. The same applies even if the British Army came in just to stabilize the initial situation and was replaced by the British police. Additionally, if the police were brought from the mainland and then the rioting continued, escalation to the use of troops would have been available as an option and may have had a coercive and intimidatory effect upon the Nationalist community, rather than just full blown escalation. There are some drawbacks to this however. If the British police were brought in, it may have been interpreted as Northern Ireland was being integrated fully into the United Kingdom and may have spurred violence on the part of Nationalists. Furthermore, the issue of where these policemen would come from inevitably arises.
Troops on the street and Early Ulsterisation:
Once British troops were deployed, as James Callaghan was warned in 1969, it would be difficult to extract them. What is interesting is that contrary to some of the literature, the policy of Ulsterisation was pursued from the start. This can be attributed to the British aim of a swift exit from the conflict. An example of this was seen “in late January 1970, [when] three of the eight major Army units that had originally been sent to Northern Ireland were withdrawn” (Neumann, 2003, p.52)
Further evidence of this can be seen by the formation of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) on the 1st of April 1970. However this policy was unlikely ever to have pleased Nationalists for the simple reason that “In the eyes of some Catholics the British policy of Ulsterisation has appeared as little more than a reversion to the pre-1969 position, in which they perceived a Protestant police force as bound to act against their interests.” (Kennedy-Pipe, 1997, p.81)
The irony of this however is that Catholics in a way put themselves in this position by refusing to join the Security Forces, thereby denying the Security Forces legitimacy. This was partly due to the threat of IRA intimidation and a stigma from the Republican community of serving in the Security services meant that this situation was inevitable.
In addition to this, the quality and size of the local security forces meant that an early withdrawal of British forces in the province was always going to be unlikely. Ulsterisation really got into full swing in the late 1970’s, with the introduction of the police primacy strategy which will be covered later on.
In terms of the situation on the ground, according to the MOD report on the conflict, the period from 1969-1972 was the insurgency phase for the IRA; “from the summer of 1971 until the mid-1970s, is best described as a classic insurgency. Both the Official and Provisional wings of the Irish Republican Army (OIRA and PIRA) fought the security forces in more-or-less formed bodies…Protracted firefights were common. The Army responded with operations at up to brigade and even divisional level. The largest of these was Operation MOTORMAN, which was conducted from 31 July to 1 December 1972. It marked the beginning of the end of the insurgency phase.” (MOD, 2006, p.7)
Two notable events occurred during 1972. The first and one of the most contentious was Bloody Sunday, an incident which occurred in the Bogside area of Derry on the 30th of January 1972 in which British soldiers from 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment. Thirteen people were killed with some of the victims shot while fleeing from troops and some were shot while trying to help the wounded. This incident led to an increase in recruitment for the IRA, although the initial propaganda advantage this gave to the IRA was eroded when “The Officials carried out a retaliatory raid on the Paras’ regimental home at Aldershot in England; but the bomb killed a Catholic priest, albeit an officer and several women cleaners. Condemnation was general.” (Bell, 1970, p.384)
The second incident was Operation Motorman, conducted on the 31st of July 1972 which was the largest British military operation since the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the biggest conducted in Ireland since the Irish War of Independence. 22,000 British soldiers augmented by 5,300 soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment were involved, in addition to some heavy armored vehicles. The objective of this operation was to take back ‘no-go areas’, which were areas that were barricaded and held by the IRA in places such as Belfast and Derry, with the ones in Derry in particular, being in response to Bloody Sunday. The spur for this operation, came from Bloody Friday, an IRA operation, when 26 bombs exploded in a period of eighty minutes, on the 21 July 1972. These ended up killing nine people, two of whom were soldiers and injured 130 others. This indicates that the British aim of restoring peace to Ulster, was at this point not fulfilled.
Despite this the operation had its advantages. As Smith writes “Motorman represented a decisive blow against PIRA. Not only did the Provisionals lose the propaganda value of the ‘no-go’ areas which often took on the appearance of PIRA mini states, but, more importantly, the movement’s operational capacity was reduced. These areas were a considerable military asset…Motorman also broke up the hard core of PIRA operatives in Belfast and Derry, most of whom dispersed into the countryside or over the border.” (Smith, 1995, p.110) This meant that if the British Army and the local Security Forces were more persistent in their campaign against the IRA, it may have been possible to defeat the IRA militarily, which would have helped in stabilising the situation in Ulster and, allow British forces to withdraw, the aim which seems to have been the one that successive British governments pursued most obsessively.
The End of the Ulster State: 1972
With the security situation deteriorating within the province after three years of violence, the British Government rushed through emergency powers that led to home-rule from Westminster, effectively ending the Ulster state which had existed prior to The Troubles. This had been brought about in “response to increased violence in the province and the apparent unwillingness of the ruling Unionist politicians to accommodate changes at that time.” (BBC, 1972) The enormity of this event should not be overlooked as it demonstrated that, due to the differences between Loyalists and Nationalists, governance from Belfast was no longer possible. In addition to this, the end of fifty years of Unionist control occurred with this event.
The reasons for this event were as follows. The fact that violence continued throughout the period from 1969 to 1972 unabated is one reason. In conjunction with this, there were severe political problems at Stormont. Brian Faulkner could not deal with his backbenchers: London was not willing to grant additional resources to help stem the violence and more hard-line Loyalists all helped make his position untenable. In addition, Brian Faulkner had decided to introduce internment and British troops were implicated in enforcing this, helping to deteriorate further the feelings of Nationalists towards the British forces.
Another reason why internment was a mistake was that “Only republicans were targeted” (Mulholland, 2002, p.95), even though the Ulster Volunteer Force, had been active since 1966, which was a clear indication of Faulkner giving in to Unionist pressure, whilst using a method that would incite more violence and seeming to give tacit support for Unionist paramilitaries. Internment (imprisonment of suspects without trial) had been used in Northern Ireland before and had been done “successfully during the 1950s, largely because it had been brought into force on both sides of the border at the same time.
But in 1971, it was a major political blunder as there was no chance that the Irish Republic, already deeply concerned with events, was going to agree to the request from Belfast.” (BBC, n.d.) This meant that anyone who was wanted, could have headed into the Irish Republic and avoid arrest, making the policy ineffective in that sense. This was indeed the case as “key figures on the lists, and many who never appeared on them, were warned before the swoop began” (Coogan, 1996, p.149). In addition to this, much of the intelligence that was used to identify suspects was outdated and many of those who were initially arrested were soon released. Furthermore, “others [arrested], although Republican minded, had not been active in decades.
Others arrested included prominent members of the Civil Rights movement. In one instance in Armagh the British Army sought to arrest a man who had been dead for the past 4 years. It appears that the rapid radicalisation of much of the North’s nationalist community, and the RUC’s alienation from that community in the previous 2 years, had created a large intelligence gap in RUC files.” (Museum of Free Derry, 2005)
The effect of this policy was not to reduce the violence but led to an increase in it. This was partly due to “the proven ill-treatment during interrogation of some of [the] internees.” (Sanders, Wood, 2012, p.56) A European Commission on Human Rights lawsuit brought by the Irish Government in 1976 ruled that, “the security forces’ use of five techniques – white noise, sleep deprivation, wall-standing, beatings and the deprivation of food and drink – amounted to torture.” (BBC News, 2011) This served to galvanise opinion in Republican circles and helped raise support for the IRA. In terms of violence, “six months before internment, twenty-five people died, in the six months afterwards, 185.” (Schiepers, 2010, para 13 of Destroying the IRA: Internment and deep interrogation segment), which indicates the lack of success of this policy.
Due to the failure of Faulkner, “The British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, became increasingly frustrated as…Stormont failed to reduce violence or introduce elements of power-sharing that involved Catholics.” (Doherty, 2001, p.13) This led to the situation in March 1972 when “to Faulkner’s surprise, the British Government, moved to take control of security and law and order powers in Northern Ireland; this meant a complete transfer of security powers to Westminster.” (McEvoy, 2008, p.73) This was the price that Stormont had to pay for its failure to curb the violence in Ulster. The loss of security powers was unacceptable to the Stormont cabinet who were unanimous in their rejection of this action: they consequently resigned, with the last meeting of the Stormont House of Commons occurring on the 28th of March 1972.
It should be noticed that both Loyalists and Nationalists did not like Direct Rule as the system left the people of Ulster with very little democratic say over the way they wanted to be governed. Despite this, some Loyalists were happy to work under this system as it demonstrated or seemed to demonstrate that Ulster was an integral part of the United Kingdom. This system also had its appeal to Nationalists as it could be believed that the politicians at Westminster would be less hostile and more likely to do things for the Nationalist community, rather than a government voted for by the majority, in this case Protestant, Unionist community.
As mentioned earlier, Ulsterisation was an attempt to distance Britain from the conflict by letting the local security forces have a bigger role in maintaining law and order. One of the methods that was adopted was police primacy. This came about from 1975 when “a committee of senior Army, RUC and intelligence officers chaired by John Bourn, an NIO [Northern Ireland Office] civil servant, produced a document called ‘The Way Ahead’. It was to become the most important security initiative of the late 1970s, leading to a policy known as Police Primacy. Under this plan, the role of the regular Army was to be reduced and overall direction of the security effort given to the RUC in 1976.” (Urban, 1992, p.17)
The fact that this policy was successful owes some explanation. The key reason that the RUC was now able to deal with the task of maintaining law and order, was due to improvements that had been undertaken following the Hunt Report. One example of this was that in 1980, “In August, for the first time since 1969, the RUC had tackled rioters in Belfast, Londonderry, Dungannon and Newry, during the internment anniversary disturbances, and had not needed to call on the army back-up.”(Ryder, 2000, p.24)
Due to the success of the RUC, the British government was able to draw down troop numbers in the province: for instance, in 1980 “the RUC relieved the RAF Regiment of its duties at the passenger checkpoint at Belfast Aldergrove airport and one of the army’s three brigade headquarters was withdrawn from Portadown” (Ryder, 2000, p.240) and that “the regular army presence had been progressively reduced to about 10,000, less than half of the 1972 peak” (Ryder, 1991, p.186).
The Covert War:
What is interesting about the Northern Ireland Troubles, was that of the role of intelligence and Special Forces. As a BBC video, Britain’s secret war with the IRA mentions, British experience in many colonial conflicts, of a similar nature to Northern Ireland, showed that intelligence was an important tool in defeating the IRA. The use of intelligence forces, can be traced to as early as 1971, when Military Reaction Forces (MRF), were deployed. In addition to this a report for Harold Wilson at the time states that: An April 1974 briefing for Prime Minister Harold Wilson stated: “The term “Special Reconnaissance Unit” and the details of its organisation and mode of operations have been kept secret.” (NIO, 1974, p.1) In addition to this, there were other methods such as the use of informers, under the MRF.
Other methods including the use of a special ‘laundry’ service, which was run by the military intelligence service. As the BBC video states: “The van, which soon became a familiar sight in Republican territory, was used to spy on the enemy. The enterprise was known as the Four Square Laundry.” (BBC History, 198?) What is interesting about this method, is that it was a way of finding out forensic information about individuals, although the level of success this method achieved has not been documented.
One method that was used extensively through The Troubles was the use of informants within the Nationalist community. The effectiveness of this can be seen in the fact that “hundreds of others, Loyalist and Republican, were forcibly or willingly recruited, primarily by the RUC’s intelligence division, the Special Branch.” (Toolis, 1995, pp.193-194) As with most campaigns against a terrorist organisation, the best intelligence is the human kind, making informers ideal with regards to Northern Ireland. The fact that British troops or Protestant members of the local Security Forces would not be able to slip into the tight-knit Republican communities, meant that the informer had to come from within the community.
In addition to this, the role of the Special Air Service (SAS) should be looked at. Some primary information available about the SAS is unavailable due to security reasons as a question and answer session in David Barzilay’s The British Army in Ulster Vol.3 shows: “9.How many men are deployed in Ulster? 9. Numbers of men in the SAS is classified SECRET” (Barzilay, 1978, p.199)
However, their effectiveness can be asserted by the fact that after their deployment to South Armagh in 1976, the levels of violence were considerably reduced: consequently SAS-type operations were extended to other areas of Ulster. Furthermore Urban points out that, “during the period from the commitment in 1976 of a SAS squadron to south Armagh to late 1987, conventional units of the Army killed nine IRA men and two members of the INLA. During the same period, the SAS and 14 Intelligence Company killed thirty members IRA members and two INLA.” (Urban, 1992, p.238)
No analysis of the Northern Ireland campaign can ignore the role of the IRA bombing campaigns. These were numerous, with CAIN giving a figure of 16209 incidents involving explosive devices, with the caveat that this is just for Northern Ireland alone. The number of major incidents that occurred on the mainland, I have worked out to be 23, although this fails to take into account devices that may have been discovered and subsequently disarmed, attacks that may have been stopped midway through execution by the security services or the smaller attacks that occurred.
The bombings on the mainland which started from 1973 are worthy of note, as until then the violence had mainly been confined to Ulster, meaning that whilst the violence was nearby, it was not near enough to influence public opinion, something which the IRA believed would make the British Government rethink its stance towards Northern Ireland. One of the first attacks was the Birmingham Pub bombings on the 21st of November 1974, in which 21 people were killed and 182 injured. This attack however, brought a backlash on the large Irish community in Birmingham, with incidents such as “petrol bomb attacks [hitting] Irish targets during the night” (Panayi, 1999, p.146) and “In Birmingham, there has been talk of English workers dropping bricks on the heads of Irish Catholic workmates on building sites and in factories.” (Milliken, 1974)
However several of the bombings conducted by the IRA failed to have the effect that was desired and further strengthened the cause of the British Government. One such act was the use of proxy bombs. This tactic involved forcing people who were civilians, off-duty members of the Security Forces or people associated with the security services to drive car bombs to British military targets, after placing them or their families under some kind of threat. An example of this was in 1990, when a Catholic man, Patrick Gillespie, who worked for the Security Forces was forced to drive a bomb loaded with explosives into the Coshquin border checkpoint, whilst his family was held hostage. As Moloney points out, this tactic damaged the Republican movement: “as an operation calculated to undermine the IRA’s armed struggle, alienate even its most loyal supporters and damage Sinn Féin politically, it had no equal.” (Moloney, 2003, p.348)
The Brighton hotel bombing has been brought up as an example of the impact the IRA could have had, if it had been successful in killing Margaret Thatcher. This I would question, as given where her party stands on the political spectrum, it would be highly doubtful if any Conservative politician who succeeded her, if the attack succeeded, would be able to either negotiate with the IRA or withdraw from the Northern Ireland conflict, without incurring a tirade of problems from Conservative backbenchers and the general public. If anything, the IRA may have scored an own goal, as the success of that attack might have just drawn in wider investment and involvement of British forces into the province, possibly leading to the collapse of the IRA, if the British government really pressed its advantages.
If we take the British Government’s aim as trying to avoid getting dragged into the conflict in the province in August 1969, then immediately we can see that this objective was unsuccessful. The fact that troops had to be deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland was not really the fault of the mainland British Government however, although it can be argued that the British Government should have done more prior to August 1969, regarding the situation in Northern Ireland, even implementing direct rule from Westminster, prior to this development in 1972 and pushing through political changes, to see off the Civil Rights campaigners.
However, it can be argued that if the British Government had intervened earlier, by imposing direct rule, “the IRA would see the ending of Stormont as a victory” (Cunnigham, 2001, p.10), which would explain why Westminster tried to avoid it. In the defence of the British Government however, if the government had taken over the direct running of Ulster, the IRA may have embarked on its campaign for unification regardless of any concessions made regarding civil rights, for ideological reasons. In addition to this, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was in no fit state for the scale of trouble that was seen in 1969, which is a fault that lies squarely on the Stormont government of the time. Finally, the Unionists’ apparent reluctance to give in to reasonable demands and reform was a major contributing cause which also lies solely with Stormont.
As regards to a quick withdrawal, we can see that this British aim was a failure also, simply by the fact that troops had been in the province up until 1997, albeit as time went on, in a supporting role. This however was not all the fault of the British government and the irony is that if the Unionists were willing to let the Security forces do their work: without getting involved, the Security forces may have been able to defeat the IRA, as the IRA may have lost support from the Nationalist community due to a lack of Protestant retaliation and rhetoric, like of that the late Reverend Ian Paisley.
A look at Northern Ireland today however reveals a society that has made remarkable improvements, although issues still remain. For one, during The Troubles, little foreign investment was made in the province. Now that the violence has largely dissipated, Northern Ireland seems to be benefiting from what is referred to as the ‘peace dividend’: “in the past 10 years [from 1998-2008], over 100,000 jobs have been created, and the unemployment rate now stands at around 4.2 percent, below the UK average of about 5.2 percent.” (Saul, 2008) Bearing in mind that one of the initial causes for the outbreak of disorder in August 1969 was job discrimination, partly interlinked with the relatively small amount of jobs, this represents a success for the British Government.
In addition to this, the levels of violence have been reduced to such a level that a semblance of normal life has returned to Northern Ireland. Whilst it is true that some violence from Dissident Loyalists and Dissident Republicans such as the Continuity I.R.A, Irish People’s Liberation Army and the Real I.R.A continues, gone are the days of bomb scares, shootings and violence on a level that now seems unbelievable given the nearness of the province and the similarities between the mainland and Ulster.
What will be interesting however, will be 2016, as hardline republicans look to celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising, with Sean O’Callaghan writing; “We have seen one dissident parade in Belfast and a seriously ugly riot as a result. But that is just one and we are going to have dozens of these dissident parades across Northern Ireland in 2016.” (Sullivan, 2014) This could lead to some ugly scenes, as sectarianism still occurs in Northern Ireland and looks set to be an issue for the foreseeable future.
To some extent the I.R.A could never have defeated the British state through use of violence alone. As Oppenheimer puts it, “in military terms, they were failures and were defeated by the security forces.
They could conduct some occasional ‘spectaculars’, but these media events did not pose serious threats to the state and its ability to govern. Even the mortar attack on 10 Downing Street (1991) was merely a grandiose symbolic gesture (with added nuisance value) to try and chivvy talks along, but was hardly likely to collapse the state. (Dingley, 2012) The fact that the IRA also suffered infighting did not help its cause at all. Civilians within Northern Ireland started to grow tired of the conflict, especially when the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom of the Republic of Ireland, was contrasted with Northern Ireland, meaning less support for the IRA and that some of the attacks of the IRA attracted such a negative response, also eroded IRA support.
Going back to the four possible conclusions that I mentioned earlier we can see clearly that the Security Forces achieved success against the IRA. The fact that they were nearly defeated and never got the British State to withdraw from the province is prime evidence of that. Overtly, the IRA was not defeated as it was able to pull off some spectacular (but ineffective) attacks such as the Brighton Hotel bombing, although the Security forces achieved two of my possible conclusions. The fact that the IRA took their violence to the mainland indicates a large level of success by the Security forces in the province, meaning that as time went on, the chances of the IRA achieving its aims by violence in Ulster alone were not a possibility. The fact that the IRA adopted an Armalite and ballot box strategy was in part due to the British government’s actions also. In conclusion, we can see that the British government, using its methods was largely successful in Northern Ireland, even though it failed initially to stay out of the conflict.
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