The British Army has been soldiering in Ireland since the 12th century. On various occasions the Irish have tried to throw it out. The Army's current antagonist in the hauntingly beautiful and historically troubled island is the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which is proving to be one of the toughest guerrilla foes it has ever faced.
Britain is not fighting the IRA for the first time. Just before the partition of Ireland in 1921, when a six-county Ulster was delivered into the hands of a Protestant majority, British forces waged a particularly savage campaign against the IRA.
The British forces lost.
Whitehall was unwilling to employ the draconian measures what would have crused the guerrillas.
In 1969, shortly after rioting flared up in Belfast and Londonderry, the Army resumed its struggle with the IRA.
Not only had it fought Irish Republican gunmen before, but it had braved many of the violent sectarian disorders that broke out in the Ulster capital in the 19th and 20th centuries.
An 18-day riot between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast in 1864, for instance, was subdued only when 2,000 British troops were rushed to the scene. When the police lost control of similar violent rioting in 1935, British troops restored order in the city with fixed bayonets.
While the Army still has to be ready to act against sectarian violence, its paramount concern is with harrying the battle-hardened IRA (and its offshoot, the Irish National Liberation Army) in the Catholic ghettos and rural regions of Ulster.
Troops patrolling on foot and in Saracen and Humber armored personnel carriers, often with the support of circling helicopters, are at their wariest in Londonderry's Bogside and Creggan estates and in Belfast's Andersonstown. Of many highly dangerous points on Ulster's long and sinuous border with the Republic of Ireland, Crossmaglen in South Armagh is one of the deadliest. The troops call it "Indian country."
In its battle against the IRA, the British Army is supported by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the RUC Reserve, and the Ulster Defense Regiment, a force raised in the province that has taken over many patrol duties from the Army. A detachment of the Royal Air Force Regiment protects Ulster's Aldergrove airport, near Belfast.
While the security forces hunt down the IRA, they also have to keep watch on various Protestant paramilitary groups, which, though docile now, could easily take to the streets to protest any solution to Ulster's woes they dislike, particularly anything that smacks of a united Ireland.
In a sense, then, the security forces are trapped between Catholic revolutionary forces and Protestant reactionary ones. Their comparative restraint often amazes foreign military observers.