NORTHERN IRELAND, THE TROUBLES: FROM THE PROVOS TO THE DET, 1968-1998
By Kenneth Lesley-Dixon
Pen & Sword Books, $22.95, 128 pages
During the Northern Ireland civil war from 1968 to 1998, known as “The Troubles,” a spectrum of adversarial Roman Catholic “Republican” and Protestant “Loyalist” terrorist groups, and the responding British government’s military, police and intelligence undercover units, operated in the province.
An extensive literature has been published about the Republican and Protestant terrorist groups (referred to by their supports as “paramilitaries”), and the political contours of the “The Troubles” are also well known, especially how the civil war was resolved through a successful British government-led peace process that culminated in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998, and the resulting power-sharing reforms between the province’s previously warring factions, which have stood the test of time through the current period.
What is less well known, and is one of this book’s major contributions to understanding the full nature of the warring groups responsible for the province’s protracted conflict, is how the British government’s responding military, police and intelligence special units were formed, their mandates, how their operatives were recruited, how they operated and their significant operations.
Drawing on recently released archival material, Kenneth Lesley-Dixon’s “Northern Ireland, The Troubles: From the Provos to the Det, 1968-1998,” reveals new information on what was often a “dirty war” between the Republican and Loyalist terrorist groups, as well as by the British counter-terrorism services that were inserted to bring order into the province’s Hobbesian state of nature, until the British political echelons had finally succeeded in formulating a peaceful solution to the protracted conflict.
To examine these issues, Mr. Lesley-Dixon’s book — with numerous photographs that illustrate the text — is divided into three parts. The first part, “Nationalist Paramilitary Organizations,” focuses primarily on the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). It operated from 1970 to 1998 with Sinn Fein, its non-violent political front contesting the U.K.’s parliamentary elections. The PIRA, the author explains, committed the largest number of terrorist attacks, which aimed “to foster urban insurgency, civil disorder [to] seriously exercise and strain routine policing and thus create a threat to national security and advance their desire for a one-Ireland island.”
It also aimed to disrupt the province’s civil order by bombing local businesses “to deter inward investment and job creation in the province. Some of its major terrorist operations involved a bombing assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten on Aug. 27, 1979 while he was on vacation in Mullaghmore, County Sligo, and bombing the Grand Hotel in Brighton on Oct. 12, 1984, where politicians including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were staying for the Conservative Party’s annual conference. While Thatcher was not hurt, five people were killed, and 34 others were wounded.
“Loyalist Paramilitary Organizations,” the second part, examines the origins and operations of groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Their operations were “intent on championing Unionism, protecting Protestant communities and ruthlessly retaliating against Republican violence.”
What distinguished them from their Republican paramilitary counterparts, however, was their collusion with the British security services. The author cites a 1985 MI5 assessment that “85 percent of the UDA’s ‘targeting material’ came from the security forces” and that a senior Royal Ulster Constabulary officer was suspected of “assisting loyalist paramilitaries to procure arms.”
In the book’s final part, “British Security Forces,” the discussion begins with the inability in 1969 by the RUC, the Province’s police force, to effectively deal with “The Troubles” violent outbreaks, which led to the deployment of the British Army to support the civil administration. Its policing problems persisted, with a 1992 estimate that only 7.7 percent of the RUC’s full-time force was Catholic, leading to criticism by Irish nationalists of engaging in discriminatory policing against the Province’s Catholic population and “collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and British intelligence units.”
As a continuous “dirty war,” the British security forces had to deal with contentious and challenging rules of engagement issues, with one of the most controversial the shoot-to-kill policy when faced with threatening insurgents. This was the case in March 1988 when British intelligence uncovered information of a PIRA plot to attack a parade of British military bands in Gibraltar.
When confronted by this terrorist cell, the responding Special Air Service (SAS) team killed its three members. This became highly controversial, as the author writes that “Despite initial praise for averting mass murder, controversy was not far behind when it was realized that none of the three IRA members had been armed and no remote bomb trigger was to be found.”
The operations of other British security forces covered in dramatic detail include the Military Reaction Force (MRF), the Special Reconnaissance Unit (also known as the 14 Field Security and Intelligence Company — “The Det”), as well as MI5, Special Branch, and the Joint Support Group (JSG).
This highly informative account would have benefited from an additional concluding chapter that updated the status of these terrorist and government security forces in the aftermath of the peace process, especially the demobilization of the Republican and Loyalist forces and the integration of their personnel into civilian society.
• Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), in Alexandria, Va.