British army paper illustrates respect for IRA


The British army succeeded in making clear to the Provisional IRA that it could not achieve its objectives through violence although the army did not "win" in any recognisable sense, an internal review of the army's operations in Northern Ireland has concluded.

The review, which deals with Operation Banner - the British army's continuous operational involvement in the North since the "troubles" began in 1969 - does, however, take an apparent contradictory position on whether it defeated the IRA.

The document, which was obtained under freedom of information legislation by the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, at one stage states that "by 1980 almost all the military structures which eventually defeated PIRA were in place", while also querying "why it then took another quarter of a century to end the campaign".

It describes Operation Banner, which should formally conclude at the end of July, as one of the army's longest campaigns and "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".

Later, towards the end of the 98-page review, the three British army officers who were specially seconded to write the document, appeared to conform to the general modern analysis that one of the key reasons the "war" ended was that neither the British army/RUC nor the IRA could defeat each other.

"It should be recognised that the army did not 'win' in any recognisable way; rather it achieved its desired end-state, which allowed a political process to be established without unacceptable levels of intimidation," the officers found.

"Security force operations suppressed the level of violence to a level which the population could live with, and with which the RUC and later the PSNI could cope. The violence was reduced to an extent which made it clear to the PIRA that they would not win through violence," they added.

"This is a major achievement, and one with which the security forces from all three services, with the army in the lead, should be entirely satisfied. It took a long time but . . . that success is unique."

The document, which provides a fascinating insight into British army thinking and which is available from the Pat Finucane Centre website, illustrates that the British army had an almost professional respect for the IRA.

It also illustrates that it saw that its "war" was against the IRA rather than against loyalist or other republican groups. Most of the paper's focus is on the IRA rather than loyalist organisations.

"PIRA developed into what will probably be seen as one of the most effective terrorist organisations in history. Professional, dedicated, highly skilled and resilient, it conducted a sustained and lethal campaign in Northern Ireland, mainland United Kingdom and on the continent of Europe," the document states.

While the document at one stage refers to the UDA as the "most respectable" of the loyalist groups, it also shows disdain for loyalist and other republican groups.

Loyalist paramilitaries "presented themselves as the protectors of the Protestant community but in practice were often little more than a collection of gangsters, a description which could also apply to a number of republican terrorists".

The review describes internment, which the army opposed, as a "major mistake".

The Pat Finucane Centre said significant dates were wrong in the paper, while significant historical events were omitted or misinterpreted. The document offered "an unprecedented and deeply worrying insight into the thinking of senior military officers and civil servants, it said.

"Above all the document betrays a profoundly colonial mindset towards the conflict here and those involved in it. From the perspective of Whitehall the rolling hills of Tyrone and Armagh might as well have been the Hindu Kush a century ago."