With the British Army having finally withdrawn operationally from the streets of the north of Ireland, bringing to an end 38 years of military intervention in the six counties,* certain UK and Irish journalists have been busy churning out articles that are intended not only to rewrite the history of the conflict, but also that of the northern Statelet since its inception in 1922. The British army are being portrayed as a force who acted honorable whilst carrying out their duties and who were sent in to protect the two communities from themselves and the demons within them, i e the PIRA/INLA and loyalist paramilitaries.
In reality this was never the case, the British Army were sent on to the streets in 1969 to prop up by force of arms the rapidly disintegrating Orange State, it really was that simple. The myth the British Prime Minister of the day James Callagahan, sent the Army on to the streets of the north in August 69, after receiving a frantic telephone call asking for British Troops to be sent in from Nationalist MP Gerry Fitt, phoning from a chip shop on the Falls Rd, is repeated in many of the aforementioned articles. In reality it was the Northern Ireland Unionist Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark who requested the Troops be sent in, as the RUC and B Specials could no longer hold the line against what he perceived as being the enemies of the Orange State. The fact that the first troops to arrive were sent out on to the streets of the Nationalist Bogside, Derry, and not the Falls Rd Belfast speaks volumes about the mission they had been tasked with and makes a nonsense about the official claims as to why they had been sent in.
There is much hogwash talked today about Operation Bannerman having been part of a grand UK government political-military strategy that from day one was designed to democratize the Orange State and pull the teeth of the Republican Movement by drawing it into the political process, a la the Good Friday Agreement. For the first decade of the troubles the UK State’s strategic priority was to decisively defeat the Republican Movement militarily and return it to its fringe existence within the six counties.
It was to be many years before the penny finally dropped at Westminister and the British politicians realized that if they were to hold on to the North and make it as British as Finchley, as Margaret Thatcher had once boasted, they would have to put together an all inclusive program that would be acceptable to not only the middle classes, but all communities in the north; and their political representatives. From its inception it was to take over two decades before this strategy came to fruition, at first it went forward at a snails pace and in a grudgingly manner. It was only after a secret intelligence estimate written in 1978 by General Glover, the Commander of Land Forces in the north came into the hands of Provos and was published in Republican News that the British gradually changed tack from their grind the PIRA into the ground postures. General Glover disputed the government’s position that the members of the IRA were thugs and hooligans and concluded that the British could never defeat the IRA militarily and that “The Provisionals’ campaign of violence is likely to continue while the British remain in Northern Ireland.” Thus it was a combination of the publication of Glovers report, the climax of the Blanket protests and the Hunger Strikes and all that accompanied them which convinced the British State of the need to bring the leadership of the RM into the fold. To achieve this the Orange State would need to be restructured.
In the meantime the introduction in 1969 of the British Army on to the streets of Nationalist working class communities had pored oil onto the flames of what was up until then at most a public order situation, which could be compared with the public disorder that took place in 1985 at London’s Broadwater Farm Estate. Once the British army started brutalizing the nationalist population they had originally claimed to be protecting, and for opportunistic reasons began standing four square with militant loyalism, the UK military quickly became a core part of the problem. Not least because for the nationalist working classes the British army along with the RUC epitomized the public face of the Orange State and all the injustices it had meted out to them and theirs. Thus the British armies presence on the streets led to the politicization of the nationalist working classes to a leval that previous generations of Republicans had only dreamed about..
The PIRA, which had consisted prior to the arrival of the British Army of little more than a handful of gunmen attempting to do there best to ward off the loyalist mobs attacking Nationalist homes and Catholic church property in exposed areas like the Short Strand, grew into the formidable fighting force General Glover mentioned in his intelligence assessment.
It was the mistakes made by the British Army in the first years of their 38 year occupation and the refusal of British politicians to condemn and rectify them that set the six counties on fire. The Falls Road curfew, an aggressive system of stop and search, internment, operation motorman, mistreatment and torture of arrested nationalist’s, Bloody Sunday, Diplock Courts; all were to play a part in rushing the north down the slippery slope that was to lead to car bombs, shoot to kill, tit for tat murder, Enniskillen, and countless other horrendous and totally avoidable events.
Yes the Republican movement made some awful decisions and should have ended their war long before they did. In their defense the PIRA were a small embattled organization which was up against one of the most powerful military machines in the world. At times during the 38 year conflict the PIRA was just able to keep its head above water. The majority of its volunteers were hunted night and day by the security forces and their acolytes within the loyalist para military death squads.
When the British Army turned on the nationalist working classes with such viciousness to prop up the Orange State, young men and women from within that community reached for the nearest vehicle to hand to defend themselves and their community. As puny as the IRA was at the time and being such a blunt instrument, military victory was always an impossibility, never the less I have no doubt that history will absolve them and place the blame for the conflict squarely on the shoulders of those who were responsible, the British government, those Unionists politicians who made the Orange State such a cold and bleak house for Irish catholics, and the southern political establishment who all but abandoned their fellow nationalists in the north after the Free State was established.
As to the British Army, despite their claims to the contrary, it is clear that operationally they have learnt very little from their thirty eight years of inflicting pain and hardship on the nationalist working classes. One only has to look at Iraq and Afghanistan to understand this, where the British Army are repeating many of the same mistakes that they made in the north, not least underestimating their enemies, mistreating prisoners, aggressive stop and search, brutalizing the civilian population and believing they can corrupt and buy their way to victory. When will the government of the UK understand you cannot enter another’s land bayonet in hand, and not expect to be despised and hated. Yes there will always be the dregs of humanity or helpless souls who will take the UK State’s coin and do there bidding, but there will also be people who will resist with every bone in their body and eventually there day will come.
* Operation Bannerman, code name of British military intervention in the north of Ireland, 1969-2007.
** The first photo on the right[see above] was taken of the British army in Basra, Iraq, the other two on the streets of the north of Ireland.