The scale of the British army’s presence in Northern Ireland during the Troubles is staggering. More than a quarter of a million troops served in Operation Banner, the army’s longest continuous campaign.
Huw Bennett’s compelling and authoritative study of the first, and most violent, half-decade of Operation Banner is a landmark study of this massive commitment of “blood and treasure” by the British state.
The author draws on a dauntingly extensive array of sources, including Nato archives in Brussels, military museums dotted across Great Britain — he contacted more than 50 of them — and thousands of military and political records held in the UK National Archives in Kew.
Bennett argues that the British army, rather than blundering into counterproductive repressive measures, deliberately escalated its campaign against the IRA from spring of 1971 and waged an all-out counterinsurgency war from August 1971 with the aim of achieving a speedy and decisive defeat of the IRA.
That the push for a quick military victory was driven in large measure by unionist pressure and the goal of placating loyalist paramilitaries who were beginning to show their strength is one of the central findings of this compelling study.
The turning point was the one-sided introduction of internment in August 1971. It targeted hundreds of suspected republicans and a few civil rights activists but not a single loyalist and sparked a sharp and sudden upsurge of violence. Many moderate nationalists viewed internment as an act of blundering stupidity by the British.
Fine Gael senator John Kelly, for example, even as he castigated the Fianna Fáil government in October 1971 for not clamping down hard on the IRA remarked that “it is understandable in the face of British stupidity and brutality, that people should feel sympathy with the IRA at this time despite the … frightfulness of their methods”.
But Bennett’s argument that “the internment decision should be interpreted as a deliberate military escalation — and not a mistake based on ignorance” is convincing.
At a meeting of the Joint Security Committee a few days after internment the head of British troops in the North, GOC Gen Sir Harry Tuzo, remarked “optimistically” (as Bennett puts it) that the situation was now “resolving itself into a proper military war”.
The “war” allowed for restraints on the army to be loosened and for the pursuit of outright military victory. It also opened the way to many more killings of civilians by the troops. It is frequently, and rightly, pointed out that fewer than 10 per cent of those killed during the Troubles died at the hands of British soldiers but that proportion was much higher in the early 1970s.
Once the gloves were off senior military officers strongly resisted efforts to put them back on, pressing for more mass arrests and interrogations and “closing our ears to the storms of protest” as Tuzo put it.
Bennett demonstrates that the army’s drive for victory was underpinned by the firm, but mistaken, conviction that the IRA could be beaten quickly and decisively.
The cost of waging a “proper military war” against the IRA in the early 1970s was to turn the radical militant republican tradition from a marginal one into a major political force with deeply rooted support in many Catholic rural and urban working-class areas.
Bennett’s account details how the strategic goal of avoiding a “war on two fronts” — avoiding confrontation with loyalists in other words — shaped British policy from 1969 onwards, inhibiting early efforts at reform, delaying direct rule and motivating many of the most repressive measures directed against the minority.
“At all costs we must remain friends with the Protestants” was how the GOC Gen Frank King put it in May 1974 as he resisted pressure to use the army to defend the powersharing executive against the loyalist Ulster Workers Council strike.
Bennett provides one particularly striking account from the archives of how the aim of avoiding a “war on two fronts” was manifested on the ground.
When British troops raided a house looking for escaped UVF leader Gusty Spence in October 1972 they stumbled on “55 to 58 UVF conferring round a table”, including, the army believed, “all their province-wide leaders”. They were brought to the RUC station in Castlereagh.
When Lord Windlesham, the duty minister at the Northern Ireland Office, heard the news, he phoned the RUC chief constable “to express surprise at [the] large catch and hopes that all those against whom no charges can be preferred will be released”. By 9am the next day the RUC had released all but six and they too were later released on bail. And this at a time when the British army was seeking to “kill, wound and capture” as many IRA members as possible.
The view that loyalist violence might, in some ways, assist the British was occasionally expressed out loud. At one high-level meeting convened by defence secretary Lord Carrington in 1972 and attended by, among others, Gen Carver, chief of the general staff, the note-taker recorded that “in discussion, the point was made that the killing of IRA members by Protestants might be no bad thing from our point of view if it led to a cessation of violence”.
Bennett is surely right to argue that “this notion of loyalist military power as strategically beneficial in damaging republicanism — whether applied in violent form or implied through intimidation — persisted for many years and, arguably, had a greater influence on events than direct collusive support to loyalist paramilitaries”.
Bennett’s epilogue details the obstacles that were thrown up to his research, partly motivated by fears that archival sources might assist those seeking to prosecute soldiers and partly because he came to be regarded as a less promisingly uncritical chronicler of the British army than initially thought. It illuminates the ongoing struggles to shape the writing of the history of the Troubles.
I can’t agree with all of Bennett’s assessments. To take one example: loyalist interest in independence, a form of British withdrawal that it was hoped might provide a basis for compromise with republicans, was more persistent and serious than he allows.
But the quibbles are minor. This deeply informed and vital book greatly adds to our knowledge of the role the British army played during the Troubles and offers a deeper understanding of how and why the conflict escalated in those crucial early years.
- Niall Ó Dochartaigh is Prof of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Galway and the author of Deniable Contact: Back-channel Negotiation in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2021)