The wrong force in the wrong place for 38 years

By Tom McGurk (for Sunday Business Post)

The behaviour of British soldiers in the North was a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.

History rarely records what might have been, yet as the British Army’s 38-year-long sojourn in the North came to an end this week, perhaps not many know how it might all have been so different.

A series of political blunders, coupled with the inability to realise the long-term implications of the evolving crisis in the North in 1969, cascaded the whole society and the British army into a nightmare of death and destruction.

From the beginning, the army’s involvement, ‘‘in aid of the civil power’’, as it was framed, was a legalistic nightmare.

The then Stormont government was in fact the civil power, but there was no way in which it could legally assume control of the British army. That was a Westminster prerogative, and for hours in those August evenings in 1969, as Belfast and Derry burned, senior officials in Whitehall were locked in conference trying to sort out the problem.

In the end, compromise - which incidentally the courts later discovered to be defective - was worked out. The Army General Officer Commanding NI would listen to requests from the NI Minister of Home Affairs, then consult with London and then come back with his decision. It was a political and legal device which in the long-run proved to be catastrophic.

For a start, there was wide confusion as to what the army’s role was supposed to be. To the supporters of the now badly battered unionist government of James Chichester Clarke, it was going to help them put manners on the nationalists again, but to the army, its job was simply to hold the ring while somebody came up with a political solution.

The North was on the edge of political anarchy, the then Labour government at Westminster was reluctant to force Stormont to take radical measures, and the nationalist population was terrified that the previous August’s attempt at a pogrom would recur.

The result was that in that first year, while the British army was still enjoying something of a political honeymoon being welcomed by nationalists in Belfast and Derry, a unique window of opportunity was slowly closing.

Ironically, one military decision made at that time, probably without malice but which was to prove terribly wrong in the long run, was the army’s insistence on the 24-hour patrolling of nationalist areas. And they did it incessantly, with both foot-patrols and armoured convoys.

It may have been just the army keeping an eye on things; it may well have been simply to find something for almost 10,000 soldiers to do, other than sit around barracks, but it was to prove fatal.

In a short time, confrontations between young nationalists and the army were breaking out in nationalist areas. Little of it had any political relevance - rather, it was territorial and sometimes hooligan-based, and the young squaddies were only too happy to jump out of their armoured personnel carriers and get involved.

Stones led to bottles which led to petrol bombs and, before long, the points of friction began to assume a military dimension. Astonishingly, the army seemed utterly unaware of the stupidity of its actions and, even worse, seemed to regard it as a challenge to its authority. Soon, full-scale riots were breaking out over the tiniest of reasons; someone too roughly searched or a pet dog run over by a Landrover.

But what so profoundly altered the significance of this moment in time in the North was that it coincided with the reemergence of militant Republicanism. In the aftermath of the loyalist attacks in Belfast, the Provisional IRA had reemerged.

Its members were a tiny minority even in nationalist areas, and were largely unpopular. They had failed to protect the nationalist community the previous August and, for many nationalists, after the heady days of the civil rights movement, they belonged to the past.

On the streets in that first winter after the army came in August 1969, the reality was that, slowly but surely, the army’s behaviour became a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.

As confrontations with the local population increased, and as the army in response adopted tougher and rougher tactics, so the notion of the IRA as defenders of its people began to emerge. By the spring of 1970,when the IRA was able to take its first shots at the army, the escalation had become unstoppable.

In response to the re-emerging IRA, the unionists too began to demand that the army take action in the nationalist areas. With the IRA trying to start a war, and with the unionists determined to continue theirs, ironically the army, originally conceived as the instrument of peacekeeping, now became the opposite.

Whatever about the ideology of Republicanism, after their mother’s door was smashed in or they were batoned down the street, local youths began to drift into the IRA.

By the summer of 1970, only months after their deployment, the army was regularly using CS gas and rubber bullets.

Their political honeymoon was over and the essential elements and components in the guerrilla war that was soon to erupt with huge ferocity were already evolving.

Next came the infamous Falls Road curfew, when the army forced thousands indoors and drove unionist ministers and the press around in lorries to view what seemed like their ‘occupied town’.

The original fatal flaw as to who had direct responsibility for the army -Westminster or Stormont - was soon to culminate in the disaster of internment in 1971. Astonishingly, a mere 24 months from arriving to cups of tea and a huge welcome from the Catholic population, the British army was now dragging the same people from their beds in the middle of the night and locking them up in prison camps without trial or habeas corpus.

Perhaps what then followed after internment - Bloody Sunday and the rest - had all that sense of historical inevitability about it, but in the months just after the army was first deployed in the North in August 1969, there was a unique opportunity, tragically not to be seen again for almost 40 years.

In other words, it need not to have turned out the way it did; indeed with a fair wind and some inspired political touches, it need not all have disappeared down the ditch of inevitability.

The British army blundered into a war the IRA was hoping for, the unionist politicians were incapable of either political imagination or generosity and, hugely reluctantly, the nationalist population took off down a road they could barely recognise.

Unlike the 1890s or the 1920s, the nationalist population this time was not prepared to be beaten into acquiescence. Tragically, it took some 38 years for that to be politically formalised. As the army left this week, with hardly a muffled drum to lead them out, the magnitude of the wastage of it all was overwhelming.

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