By Aly Renwick
Operation BANNER is the authorized name for the operations of the British Armed Forces in Northern Ireland from August 1969 to July 2007. I believe that veterans should question the official history of Operation BANNER and I present the following as a contribution towards the construction of an alternative narrative.
As Britain entered the 1960s, the country was emerging from a long period of rationing and austerity that had lasted from the end of the Second World War – from which the UK had emerged victorious, but also deeply in debt. To preserve their power and wealth post-war, the British establishment had then set about squeezing every last drop of profit from the Empire – while using the armed forces to brutally crush anti-colonial revolts in places like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden. In conventional warfare terms, our deemed main enemy – the Russians, had once been one of Britain’s key allies against the Nazis.
Nowadays, the 60s is often called the time of drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll and has been blamed, by conservative politicians like Thatcher and Blair, for all manner of problems in modern society. In fact the decade was a contradictory period which saw a dramatic rise in consumerism, after the post-war restrictions, but also a start to the decline of industry. It saw the rise of a counterculture and the spread of soulless high-rise tower blocks and concrete town centres. Gays were still prosecuted, as were the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and anyone else who where thought to be out of line.
After the Education Act reforms of 1944, a better educated generation had gradually emerged, who were determined to question and contest the values of their ‘elders and betters.’ This is the main reason conservatives still fear the 60s, because it was a time when the establishment’s authority was challenged and some of us started to see them as the enemy – rather than those they pointed their finger at. Feminists and Greens appeared with the anti-nuclear peace movement, and most merged to became anti-imperialist in opposition to the US war in Vietnam. As workers and student struggles erupted in Europe and across the world, in Derry and Belfast civil rights protesters were being batoned off their streets by the local para-military style police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland took its inspiration from the 60s’ radical upsurge in general and the black struggle for civil rights in America in particular. And the period from August 1968 to August 1969 became a year of civil rights, but many peaceful protests were brutally attacked by the RUC, their auxiliaries the B-Specials and Unionist / Loyalist vigilantes. In August 1969, after an annual Orange march in Derry, the RUC and B-Specials tried to force their way into the Nationalist Bogside area, but were met by determined resistance from the local people. After two days of street fighting, the demoralised RUC and B-Specials were withdrawn and replaced by British soldiers. There was now a brief ‘honeymoon period’ between the soldiers and the Nationalists, who had regarded the entry of the troops as a victory over the Unionists Government at Stormont and their repressive police.
In the weeks before British troops were sent out onto the streets of Derry the number one hit in the UK record charts was Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman. This song was to ring out over the barricades in Nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry and at student sit-ins and workers struggles in Britain:
Call out the instigators
Because there’s something in the air
We’ve got to get it together sooner or later
Because the revolutions here
But behind closed doors, the ruling class knew they were struggling to maintain their power and control and began to put plans into action. As well as continuing the ‘cold war’ with Russia, they were now also gunning for the ‘enemy within,’ which included ‘militant trade-unionists’ and ‘protesters’ and ‘troublemakers’ of every kind.
Also in August 1969, one of the organisations that became a main combatant in the Northern Ireland conflict issued a new training manual for its volunteers. It starts with a quote from Mao Tse Tung: ‘Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.’ This instruction book was not, however, produced by any Irish ‘terrorist group,’ but was in fact, the latest volume of the British Army’s secret training manual Land Operations. This 1969 version -Volume III, entitled Counter-Revolutionary Operations – stated its aims as:
‘To give general guidance on the conduct of counter-revolutionary operations, whether they are concerned with civil disturbances, terrorism or insurgency in the pattern of revolutionary war. It examines the methods most likely to be used by the instigators of disorders, revolts and insurgency, be they nationalist or communist inspired or based within or outside the territory concerned, and it sets out the general principles on which the security forces, working in close concert with the appropriate civil power, should base their operations.’ [Land Operations, Volume III – Counter Revolutionary Operations, Ministry of Defence 29th Aug. 1969].
In 1970, Brigadier Frank Kitson was posted to Belfast to command the 39th Infantry Brigade. He had joined the British Army as a young officer soon after the end of the Second World War and helped sharpen the army’s counter-insurgency techniques in Kenya, Malaya and Oman. In 1971 his first book, Low Intensity Operations, was published and many people believed that the aim of the book was to promote the Army’s ‘new role’ in dealing with internal dissent within the UK:
‘The nature of the support the book received indicated that it was not merely an expression of one person’s views, but represented widespread Army opinion. The foreword was written by General Sir Michael Carver, then Chief of the General Staff. The book was defended in the House of Commons by the Tory Minister of State for Defence, Lord Balneil, who maintained: “This book is written by a most experienced officer in counter-insurgency, and it is regarded as being of valuable assistance to troops who will have to operate in the field”.’ [The Technology of Political Control, by Carol Ackroyd, Karen Margolis, Jonathon Rosenhead and Tim Shallice, Pluto Press 1980].
Kitson’s main experiences had been in former colonial wars, but his book suggested that troops might soon have to be used in the UK – and even against the trade-unions in Britain. Kitson’s appointment to Belfast reflected the changing military emphasis from policing, when Nationalists had welcomed the soldiers, to counter-revolutionary operations. In essence it signalled the start of an army offensive against the Nationalist community in general and the IRA in particular – and some concerned voices, suggested that Northern Ireland might now become a ‘training ground’ for the development of repressive techniques and equipment.
In 1975 the London listings magazine Time Out obtained a copy of the Army’s Land Operations manual and published extracts in its ‘Seven Days’ section:
‘We have recently looked at a copy of the Army Land Operations manual … The manual, a loose-leaf text of over 300 pages outlines the attitude of the British Army towards social unrest and in minute detail describes the Army’s choice of responses to it. The manual is marked restricted and as such covered by the Official Secrets Act. But since that Act is now so discredited and since the information contained in the manual can be of no military aid to any enemy, we have decided to publish parts of it, believing it vital that the political issues it raises are open to public debate.
The manual shows clearly that the Army regards its operations in Ireland as counter-revolutionary … This will come as no surprise to Ireland watchers, but is contrary to the Army’s press-handout image which portrays its role in Ireland as that of keeping the peace between two bigoted factions.’ [Time Out, 10-16 Jan. 1975].
Time Out had already given details of army training, which included a statement from Terry, a deserter on the run, who had told the magazine about his time in the British Army:
‘We’ve all been through riot training as part of our normal training – it was a bit of fun at the time. One half of us pretended to be Irish or the miners – or whoever was on strike at the time – and the other half would just charge into them. We’d think, “Today we’ll really get those strikers, or those Irish.” We really thought like that.’ [Time Out, 7-13 April 1972].
Propaganda & Conflict
A knowledge of Land Operations is crucial to any assessment of the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland, but the top brass and the politicians wanted to keep the contents of the manual secret. Consequently, hidden behind the Official Secrets Act, it was hardly ever mentioned in the British media – denying the British people knowledge of the ideology and strategy behind their soldiers’ training and actions. As stated in its introduction, the manual had drawn on the Army’s experiences in previous campaigns:
‘Between the end of World War II and 1st January 1969, Britain’s forces have had to undertake a wide variety of military commitments and only in Europe, after the formation of NATO, has there been any real stability. Fifty-three of these commitments have been of the counter-revolutionary type, with only Korea and the short Suez campaign falling outside this category.’ [Land Operations Volume III – Counter Revolutionary Operations, Ministry of Defence 29th Aug. 1969].
In particular, the manual drew on the lessons the army had learned in its colonial wars from 1945, in places like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden. From now on Land Operations was revised regularly to include the lessons learned in Northern Ireland, where the Nationalist community and the IRA was now identified as ‘the enemy.’ Following a long established tradition the army then started to prepare its soldiers for this counter-revolutionary task – and the minds of the young soldiers were indoctrinated by briefings, both verbal and written.
In the early days of the conflict the Sunday Times Insight Team examined a publication given to soldiers just before a tour of duty:
‘The Army rapidly produced a booklet; called “Notes on Northern Ireland,” with the praiseworthy aim of giving its men some idea what the trouble was all about … The booklet printed in full what purported to be the oath of the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein. As a case-study in psychosis, it deserves reprinting:
“I swear by Almighty God … by the Blessed Virgin Mary … by her tears and wailings … by the blessed Rosary and Holy Beads … to fight until we die, wading in the fields of Red Gore of the Saxon Tyrants and Murderers of the Glorious Cause of Nationality, and if spared, to fight until there is not a single vestige and a space for a footpath left to tell that the Holy Soil of Ireland was trodden on by the Saxon Tyrants and the murderers, and moreover, when the English Protestant Robbers and Beasts in Ireland shall be driven into the sea like the swine that Jesus Christ caused to be drowned, we shall embark for, and take, England, root out every vestige of the accursed Blood of the Heretics, Adulterers and Murderers of Henry VIII and possess ourselves of the treasures of the Beasts that have so long kept our Beloved Isle of Saints … in bondage … and we shall not give up the conquest until we have our Holy Father complete ruler of the British Isles … so help me God.”
The interesting point is that the oath was never taken by members of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein, indeed, had no oath of any kind. The version the Army got dated from 1918, when it was forged by a group of over-heated Unionists. It has since appeared regularly in Loyalist Ulster news-sheets, most recently in Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph. It bears exactly the same relation to reality as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – indeed, in its constant dwelling on blood, it has much in common with the Protocols. As a document, therefore, it tells one nothing about Sinn Fein, though quite a lot about the impulses to violence in Unionism.’ [Ulster, by the Sunday Times Insight Team, Penguin Special 1972].
This question might have been asked: How did this blatant bit of fabrication find its way into a British Army publication, issued to young soldiers just before a tour of duty? One can envisage, however, how it might have influenced their outlook and attitude. That it was used is proof that the MoD and army were intent on filling the heads of their soldiers with propaganda. During this period W. Sellick, a soldier in the first battalion Royal Green Jackets, was among the rising numbers of British troops being sent to Northern Ireland. He remembers arriving at the Belfast Mulhouse barracks in 1971:
‘My first encounter … was when a mobile patrol came under nail bomb attack, and the patrol lifted a man who they thought might have been the thrower. I was watching the company TV when he was dragged into the camp. He was shown to all the others in the TV room.
He was then taken into the passageway and was repeatedly hit in the stomach and balls with rifle butts. Then the rest of the soldiers joined in with fists and boots. He then had his fingers broken by a corporal who jumped on them while two others held his arms out. All this happened within about ten minutes of him being dragged in.
Another instance was while I was on a foot patrol in the Catholic area of Belfast. We encountered a small group of kids who began to throw bottles and so on … and as usual the army over-reacted. Before long there was a rather larger crowd. After a while there were a few shots fired at the army and I was ordered to search, with two others, some back alleyways.
A boy of about 16 was stopped in an alleyway by an NCO who was pointing his rifle at him and telling the boy that he was going to kill him. He kept asking the boy – who by this time had a dark patch down his jeans and was shaking a lot – what it felt like to know that you’re going to die any moment. The NCO kept this up for about five minutes, then told the boy to go away (in different words, of course).
The boy went to his father, who went to the commanding officer that same day – who instantly denied everything.’ [Socialist Worker, 14th Aug. 1976].
The Army Offensive
After the discredited RUC was withdrawn from use to be retrained and rearmed, the soldiers became the British state’s only force for ‘law and order’ in Northern Ireland. Using Land Operations as their blueprint, with sections on ‘The Threat’ and ‘Principles for the Conduct of Counter Revolutionary Operations’ and details of how psychological operations, military actions and political initiatives must be co-ordinated, they set to work. Under commanders like Kitson, all of this could now be acted out on the streets in Northern Ireland. So, given carte blanche by Westminster and egged on by the Unionists in Stormont, the army gradually embarked on a series of aggressive operations.
These actions, which included the Falls Curfew 1970, Internment 1971, Bloody Sunday 1972 and Operation Motorman 1972, quickly turned Northern Ireland into a zone of on-going conflict. These hostile acts, however, did not cow the Nationalists and instead only bred a violent resistance. The Sunday Times Insight Team reported that after the Falls Curfew: ‘In the months that followed, recruitment to the Provisionals [IRA] was dizzily fast: the movement grew from fewer than a hundred activists in May-June to nearly 800 by December.’ [Ulster, by the Sunday Times Insight Team, Penguin Special 1972].
Westminster had ordered internment after it had been demanded by the Unionist Government at Stormont. The weeks after it was implemented saw a sharp rise in protests and violent resistance. Some of the soldiers on the ground, who had to face this backlash, developed strong views against internment and some of these were outlined in the regimental magazine of the Royal Marines’ 45 Commando:
‘The British Army, as the instrument of internment, has become the object of Catholic animosity. Since that day the street battles, countless explosions, migrations from mixed areas and cold-blooded killings have done little to reassure us that internment would, by the removal of the gunner, provide a return to a semblance of law and order, a basis for a political solution to Ulster’s problems.
Ironically it appears to have produced the opposite effect:
‘the Catholic population of Northern Ireland is now even more alienated and hope that Catholics and Protestants could live in harmony is even more remote… Fortunately 45’s stay in this depressing and unhappy country is a short one. The recent shootings of British soldiers during the past week and the continuing explosions make it evident that internment was quite inefficacious. It has, in fact, increased terrorist activity, perhaps boosted IRA recruitment, polarised further the Catholic and Protestant communities and reduced the ranks of the much needed Catholic moderates. In a worsening situation it is difficult to imagine a solution.’ [Reprinted in Pig in the Middle – the Army in Northern Ireland by Desmond Hamill, Methuen Ltd, London 1985].
The magazine’s editor, an officer who believed the article reflected the feelings of many soldiers, was hauled over the coals by the Under-Secretary for the Navy for publishing this view. There had also been an on-going debate in Nationalist areas about if they should they continue their civil rights struggle by peaceful political means? Or resort to using violent resistance? Bloody Sunday, after 13 demonstrators were shot dead by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment in Derry, resolved this discussion in favour of the latter. The day after Bloody Sunday there were long queues of local people, outside the Sinn Fein office in Derry – and they all wanted to join the IRA. British politicians and the Army top brass, however, did not change course. Instead, they actually increased the repression by launching Operation Motorman against the resistance in Nationalists areas and then built a series of army forts in the heart of these now conquered territories.
The forts were ugly structures, surrounded by a high corrugated-iron fence, and topped with barbed wire, with look-out posts at regular intervals. There was constant danger of attacks, from snipers and petrol and mortar bombs. Inside, the troops were cooped-up in overcrowded and unsanitary living accommodation. In this hostile and alienating situation, one of the only ways for soldiers to relieve their frustrations was to take it out on the ‘enemy’ outside. In tandem, the undercover or ‘dirty,’ war became especially important, with ‘counter-gangs’ and collusion being used extensively. Psychological warfare techniques and manipulation of the media, including censorship, also assumed great importance. Despite this – or perhaps more likely because of it – resistance continued to increase.
With the British Government and media still hailing the troops as ‘peacekeepers,’ some soldiers liked this more aggressive role. Others just wanted to survive their tour of duty and they kept their heads down, obeyed orders and did not ask any awkward questions. A few, like Royal Marine Chris Byrne, who was stationed in North Belfast, started to have doubts:
‘I was sent to the North the day after my 18th birthday … I was stationed in Tactical HQ as an orderly for a period. Anyone arrested and all suspects were brought in there for screening. My room where I slept was right next door to the interrogation room and every night you’d hear people coming in and getting roughed up, their heads being banged against the walls, screaming and everything. I was more annoyed at losing my sleep than anything else at the time …
I saw lots of blokes who had been given a real hammering. One of the first things I saw when I arrived there was a little room called “The Box.” It was about 10 feet by 10 feet with a table and chair in it – and it was covered in blood. Other blokes said – “It’s just from blokes who get a working over.” There were pictures in the Intelligence Room of blokes propped up between two marines, really smashed to pulp…
When I was there I didn’t understand the situation, but I tried to keep my mind open. I was willing to listen. I used to read the Irish News. I was one of the few people who read it. Then the CO banned it because it started reporting incidents of my unit beating people up. I complained and then people began to accuse me of being a sympathiser – in a joking way – but on occasions people got a bit serious. At times I was threatened physically by people who were frustrated with it all and saw me as a bit sympathetic to the other side. But I wasn’t – I was just against killing from any quarter.’ [Chris Byrne, ex-Royal Marine, British Soldiers Speak Out On Ireland, Information On Ireland 1978].
Most soldiers went to Northern Ireland believing they would be doing a worthwhile job, but once there many, just like Chris Byrne, became disillusioned by the reality. Captain Mike Biggs, who left the army as a conscientious objector because of his experiences in Northern Ireland, was interviewed on BRM Radio in Birmingham by presenter Ed Doolan:
Ed Doolan: Former army captain Mike Biggs caused quite a stir when he wanted to leave the army. I’m going to ask Mike to give us his story. Mike, now you went over to Ireland when?
Mike Biggs: Back in June 1973 and I stayed until September 1973.
Ed Doolan: Take me through those months and what happened to you as a person and what you decided to do.
Mike Biggs: Perhaps I should say that I went out there feeling I was a peace-keeper, I was part of a peace-keeping force. Through my own experience, through the patrolling on the streets, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t see myself as a peace-keeper – just through the reaction from the community and the way we were patrolling a certain area.
Ed Doolan: Now you’d better expand on that reaction from the community.
Mike Biggs: I said I thought I was a peace-keeper and I approached members of the community – basically people of my own age, who I thought might have a similar interest – and the suspicion and antagonism with which they greeted me, because I was there in army uniform and with a weapon – there was no way that they could believe me when I said, ‘Look, I really do want to know what you’re at.’ The uniform and the weapon told them something otherwise.
Ed Doolan: Was that irrespective of the religion and background of the people you were talking to?
Mike Biggs: Well, in Newry where I was, it’s a predominantly Roman Catholic area, so you have to say that most of the people I came into contact with would have been Catholics. In Newry I also saw that rather than peace-keeping between the Catholics and the small Protestant community, we were pushing a wedge through, which was furthering the division between the two communities. I could see that we were actually polarising them.
Ed Doolan: How were you doing that?
Mike Biggs: The Protestants certainly associated strongly with the army. They gave us all the goodies, they came to us, they saw us quite often. A patrol in a Protestant estate was always a vehicle one and was always considered an easy ride. Whereas in the Catholic estates, in particular in Derrybeg – we were there very frequently on foot and on patrol, and certainly the attitude adopted by the patrol was a far more no-nonsense attitude, a very hard-line one, which reflected once again the attitude that was instilled into us – to be very suspicious of the Catholics because they are the people who are likely to harbour the IRA, and they are the people who are likely to give you trouble. I went out to Northern Ireland thinking that would be the case. What I gained from my experience there was that I questioned whether their antagonism was because we were patrolling their areas so frequently, because we certainly were. We were there day and night incessantly.
Ed Doolan: What about the attitude of you and your mates when you were patrolling? You have been quoted as saying that you didn’t think that you as the army behaved particularly well towards the population.
Mike Biggs: Once again it’s this peace-keeping myth. I saw us as occupying an area and I think our presence there, without naming specific incidents, was a harassing one. Because the local populace could be searched, they could have their houses searched at any time. And so there was the physical presence of us being there, being occupied physically, and also psychologically, so that people wouldn’t do certain things because of the army’s presence there. Quite often there was no real concrete evidence that the houses we searched, or the people we searched, were harbourers of the IRA people or of any kind of information. We were seeking out information on anybody, on as many people as possible.
Ed Doolan: At random?
Mike Biggs: No systematically. Going through streets so that we’d know which houses we’d checked recently, the details of the people, how many people there were in the family, where they worked, what they were doing … and each battalion that goes out there builds up a very systematic checkout on all the people. [Full text in Voices For Withdrawal, Information On Ireland 1980].
Later on, in the mid-80s, Tony Parker interviewed a number of serving soldiers for his book Soldier Soldier. A young 2nd-lieutenant, then on a tour of duty in Derry, told Parker:
‘I’ve only just come to Londonderry and I think it really is, it’s a really shitty job like sewer cleaning. I think about my own home town, and try to imagine myself going round with a platoon in the streets at night, knocking on the doors of people’s houses and demanding to be let in to search them. I can’t imagine doing that with people in my own home town. I can’t imagine living in my own home town and people coming and doing that to us. I reckon it’s a pretty shitty job, I really do.’ [Soldier Soldier, by Tony Parker, Heinemann 1985].
Later on, a more senior officer, a major, said to Parker: ‘Last week I had to write to the parents of one of my lads and tell them he’d been killed. I told them he was a soldier, he died for his country, and he died in a most honourable situation as a member of a peace-keeping force, doing his best for all the people of this country. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to say in letters like that, what I’m supposed to write. We all know there’s no solution to this fucking problem and the best thing we can do is go away.’[Soldier Soldier, by Tony Parker, Heinemann 1985]
Even officers from some of the most prestigious regiments became disillusioned, like ex-Captain Morgan-Grenville who retired from the British Army after a five-year career with the Coldstream Guards. Acting as his unit’s operations officer he completed a tour of duty stationed in the South Armagh village of Forkhill. After retiring he was interviewed by David McKittrick, then London editor of the Irish Times:
‘The former captain is adamant that half or more officers share his view that a planned withdrawal of troops should be carried out. “Fifty or sixty per cent of serving officers thought along the same lines,” he told me. “I don’t think you would find a brigadier or a general who would publicly say that – it would be more than his career was worth. But you would certainly find many junior officers of that opinion. When they get back to England they tend to forget about the problem, so the numbers for withdrawal would drop slightly. But while we were over there, even the most conservative minded officer – and I belonged to a conservative-minded regiment – could be heard muttering ‘What the hell are we doing here, let’s get out.’ From junior lieutenants aged 19 and fresh out of Sandhurst to grizzled lieutenant-colonels, they thought likewise.”
Mr. Morgan-Grenville said his regiment was very concerned to ensure that its soldiers should not feel their job in the North was pointless. “We spent a lot of time trying to explain the history of Ireland to the men, trying to dress up our own role so it looked as though they weren’t risking their lives for a futile cause. But among thinking officers there was a very strong sense of futility and pointlessness, and a lack of positive morale”.’ [Irish Times, 8th March 1984].
The Training Ground
Throughout the period of conflict, the troops were being given an increasingly more intensive period of training before their tours of duty. To aid this, ‘Tin City’ training areas were built in army base areas in Britain and across the world. These mock-up Irish townships were seen as a vital final training centre – to prepare soldiers for the projected close quarter fighting in Northern Ireland. And, as had been predicted, by the mid-70s Northern Ireland had become a testing ground for troop tactics and the production of systems and weapons for social control. In 1978, the Irish Times reported on the profits to be made from these developments: ‘Earlier this year (April 5th) over £200 millions worth of defence communications equipment was sold by British firms to Saudi Arabia. The systems will be mainly for use in internal security and the installation will be monitored by the British Ministry of Defence. The system absorbs refinements developed “on the ground” in Northern Ireland.’ The report continued:
‘During May of last year the British Ministry of Defence sold equipment and services to the Shah of Iran to the value of £200 million. And a proportion of that sum was for anti-terrorist and counter-terrorist expertise and equipment. The personnel of half-a-dozen anti-terrorist agencies have been on liaison or “secondment” tours of duty in the North, as have the boffins and the product-testers of a wide range of espionage equipment. When we read of Britain’s Special Air Service involvement in the rescue of hostages at Mogadishu, that is but an accidental spin-off which Britain’s anti-terrorist industry has been quietly garnishing for years.
What, specifically, have been the military advantages to Britain of the Northern situation? Primarily, an actual role for an Army which at 172,000 (land forces of 1970) was being drastically run down until the IRA revived it during the 1970s. Subsidiary benefits included an accelerated development of materials and equipment during the ’70s, geared specifically to urban disturbances, street surveillance, limited local response in riot control – the hardware and software of reaction, from night sights to miniature, unmanned helicopters for street and area surveillance. Add computer storage of intelligence input and you are naming the kind of industrial expertise most countries of the world now have a use for.’ [Irish Times, 27th April 1978].
The Arms Trade is one of the few world markets where Britain can still claim to be a leading seller. In 1993, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, Jonathan Aitken, told the House of Commons:
‘Britain’s defence exports for 1992 were £4.5 billion, representing 20% of the world market. Those were record figures. In the month of January 1993, British companies won orders in the middle and far-east with a value approaching that of our world-wide defence exports for the whole of 1992, so we now expect that 1993 will be another record-breaking year. We regard this as a satisfactory contribution to the economy.’[Hansard, 9th Feb. 1993].
In that same year, 1993, the Labour MP, Tony Benn, issued this statement:
‘I asked the House of Commons research department to calculate the total cost of the [Northern Ireland] emergency and, at current prices, the cost of the war has been £14.5 billion.’[Statewatch, Nov.-Dec. 1993].
It was clear that while Irish people and British soldiers were dying in Northern Ireland and arms firms made huge profits from this new technology of repression, British taxpayers were paying vast sums for the on-going conflict. The subvention to Northern Ireland alone was running in the billions (this was the figure for public spending in NI over and above what NI raised itself in taxes). This figure included the costs of the police and prisons, but did not include the costs of the Army. The cost of the Northern Ireland commitment for the British Army was estimated for 1993 to be £405.6 million. Also in 1992 and 1993 two IRA bombs in the City of London caused damage estimated to be approaching £1.8 billion.
The Army top brass, however, had not been slow to realise that soldiers continually involved in a real, if limited, war could become some of the ‘best trained’ in the world. As reported in The Times, many senior officers could see the benefits of using Northern Ireland as a training ground:
‘When soldiers moved on to the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969, Lt-Gen Sir Ian Freeland, General Officer Commanding in the province, gloomily predicted they would be there for 10 years. He thought he was erring on the side of pessimism. But he also foresaw hidden benefits for the new model army, recreated after the end of National Service, in that respect he displayed more prescience … Northern Ireland has given several generations of officers and NCOs the experience of commanding troops in action. Lieutenant-colonels, in their late thirties, responsible for the safety of 500 men in, say, West Belfast or the dangerous border country round Bessbrook Mill, have matured as battalion commanders in the province.
The details might be specific to Northern Ireland. But the lessons have a wider application – which found full expression seven years ago in the Falklands. The proficiency of those who landed at San Carlos owed much to their experience in Ulster. The battles for Port Stanley and Goose Green were partly won in Belfast and Londonderry … The hiss of an incoming bullet in the Falls probably trains a soldier more quickly and efficiently than two weeks in a classroom at the School of Infantry, as senior officers privately acknowledge.
… A new generation of young men have grown up with no memory of life before 1969. To them the Army has always been in Ulster. The Army has thus become not only one of the world’s most experienced in countering terrorism but one whose fighting edge has been finely honed.’ [The Times, 8th Aug. 1989, by Henry Stanhope].
Given all that was happening in Northern Ireland, you would have thought that in our Parliament a high level of concern would undoubtedly be being expressed about this issue. In 1992 an ex-Tory MP, Matthew Parris, wrote in the magazine Spectator about his time at Westminster during the conflict:
‘In seven years as a government backbencher I do not think I encountered more than a handful of MPs on either side who cared much what happened to Ulster … Most of the rest of us went along, more or less, with the policy of Her Majesty’s Government, whatever that was – “not giving in to the men of violence” or something. But we tended to find, when Ireland was debated, that we had other things to do … And so it was that, though from the day I entered Parliament I never had the slightest doubt that Britain both must and eventually will disengage from Ulster, I never said so.’ [Spectator, 25th Jan. 1992].
The Vietnam Syndrome
While opinion polls showed that the majority of the British people, despite decades of propaganda about Northern Ireland, wanted to see the withdrawal of their soldiers, the inability of Westminster politicians to break from a Unionist agenda meant them continuing to send young soldiers out onto the streets of Belfast, Derry and country areas like Crossmaglen. In the face of mounting casualties, even from the early days it became evident that many of the soldiers were becoming fed up with their role in Northern Ireland.
In April 1974, Christopher Dobson – ‘With the troops in Ulster’s ugly world of terrorism’ – had filed this report in the Sunday Telegraph: ‘To walk along Belfast’s Royal Avenue today is like walking in the past – along Ledra Street in Nicosia when Eoka’s murderers were at work. Venturing into the Bogside in Derry is like taking a patrol into Aden’s Crater district, and dropping by helicopter into a border fort is like visiting a fire-base in Vietnam.’ Under the heading – ANGER OF ARMY THAT FEELS BETRAYED – Dobson continued:
‘So far more than 200 British soldiers have been killed while many more have been maimed. The soldiers’ work is hard, their pay is low and more often than not they receive curses instead of thanks from the people for whom they are dying.
There can be no surprise therefore that the average soldier is thoroughly fed up with Ireland and everything to do with it. But what surprised me was the extent and depth of the bitterness that exists among the troops, some of whom are on their fifth tour of duty in Ulster.
I met a section who had just returned from an “Eagle patrol” – lifted in by helicopter to set a snap road block. They were tired, dirty and remarkably frank. I said to them: “Tell me what it is all about.” Their officers were present and I believe that they were also surprised at the depth of feeling that the troops displayed.
Soldiers are expected to grumble, but these men genuinely felt that they were being misused and ill-treated. Their complaints ranged over pay, excessively long hours, of being “forgotten,” and in particular the inability of “the bloody politicians” to settle the appalling mess in which the soldiers found themselves targets of both sides.
… Just as the American soldiers in Vietnam used to divide their existence between “the Nam” and “the World” so do the British soldiers in Ulster, with only the world outside seeming real while they lead a surrealistic existence in an unreal world punctured by the brutal reality of bombs and bullets.
They feel that the people outside cannot understand this strange world of theirs and they feel cut off, forgotten. The impression they have is of people in safe England, so very close, watching their television sets, seeing the explosions and the bodies, saying, “How terrible,” and then turning to something really interesting like the price of petrol.’ [Sunday Telegraph, 7th April 1974].
The early years of the conflict in Northern Ireland had coincided with the latter years of the Vietnam War. In the US Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran, made a series of films about the American involvement in Vietnam. In the Guardian, the journalist Martin Woollacott wrote about Stone:
‘This idea of an America fighting itself is at the heart of his vision of Vietnam. The corruption of American society, in his argument, was such that an immoral government started a bad war and a degenerate middle class pushed the burden of fighting it off on to the poor and the ignorant. They, in turn, filled with anger at the way in which they had been abused, turned their rage on the Vietnamese.’ [Guardian, 18th Jan. 1994].
Clearly, much of Stone’s view of the American / Vietnam situation was finding an echo in Britain’s policy on Northern Ireland.
I joined the army at sixteen years-of-age in 1960 and I entered that decade respecting and trusting the establishment. Gradually, I began to question them – and then I laughed at them, opposed them and wanted to see them replaced. As a soldier I had served in a then passive Northern Ireland for a few months in 1968, just before I had bought myself out of the army. I then came to London to help organise the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, which I had attended while still a soldier. After the situation in Ireland exploded in late 1969, I was involved with Irish civil rights and anti-internment groups. Then in late 1973 I was one of the people who founded the Troops Out Movement (TOM). A number of Northern Ireland veterans, who had left the army because they did not agree with the conflict, joined or worked with the TOM – including several of those quoted in this article. We had an informal ex-soldiers section and marched on ‘troops out’ demonstrations behind an ‘Ex-soldiers Against the War in Ireland’ banner.
While I was still serving, in 1967, I remember being influenced by the actions taken by Muhammad Ali, the then US and World Heavyweight Boxing champion. He had received his draft order for Vietnam, but Ali refused to go and this led to his arrest, trial and conviction for draft evasion. This is what he said to explain his actions:
‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
‘No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…’
Thirty years previously, just before the start of the Second World War, Bertolt Brecht, a play-write who opposed the Nazis, wrote a series of poems and satires about the German Army that included the following:
Those at the top say comradeship
Reigns in the army.
The truth of this is seen
In the cookhouse.
In their hearts should be
The selfsame courage. But
On their plates
Are two kinds of rations.
When it comes to marching many do not know
That their enemy is marching at their head.
The voice which gives them their orders
Is their enemy’s voice and
The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.
In the foreword to Operation BANNER General Sir Mike Jackson stated that:
‘The immediate tactical lessons of Operation BANNER have already been exported elsewhere, with considerable success. Operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq have already demonstrated both the particular techniques and the levels of expertise learnt through hard experience, both on the streets and in the fields of Northern Ireland.’
In Operation Banner, however, it is also admitted that when the army started its activities the IRA was a small, almost moribund, organisation. But never is the question asked: Did the aggressive activities of the army help spark conflict and create violent opposition? Instead, the top brass claim their repressive tactics are a great success and, in conjunction with the ruling politicians, export them around the world for use in new conflicts.
Surely veterans are better served by standing with the likes of Ali, in opposition to these wars, and with Brecht, who pointed out who our true enemy is – than with any of our present day political and military leaders and the spin-doctors they employ to write fiction about their reasons for launching wars and their justifications afterwards. In Northern Ireland it was the aggressive actions of the army that helped create a conflict. Since then, in many other places, the politicians and the top brass have done the same thing over and over again.
Aly Renwick served with the British Army in Thailand during the war in Vietnam, he is a member of Veterans For Peace UK