British Army in N. Ireland: 20 Years On

WHEN the British Army moved into Northern Ireland on August 14, 1969 to quell the civil disturbances that had been taking place for weeks, no one dreamed that the Ulster troubles would still be festering some 20 years later. The first troops, from the Prince of Wales Own Regiment, were deployed in Londonderry to keep order after the local Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were exhausted by days and nights of continuous rioting in the wake of civil rights marches. On August 15, troops were sent into Roman Catholic West Belfast, and gradually the army became bogged down in the Northern Ireland quagmire of politics and violence. Twenty years on there is no prospect of the army leaving; principally, their continued presence prevents a communal blood bath.

In the early days of 1969, the British soldiers were actually welcomed in parts of Catholic Belfast as a protection against marauding Protestant-Loyalist gunmen. But the honeymoon period did not last. The illegal Provisional Irish Republican Army was re-grouping in the background, and soon the army became a principal target.

Over the years there has been a steady stream of casualties, most notably on August 27, 1979 when 18 soldiers were killed in an IRA booby-trap at Warrenpoint, just north of the Irish border. On that same day Lord Mountbatten of Burma was killed in an IRA explosion at Sligo, off the Irish Coast. The army presence also led to many casualties. In 1970, British paratroopers killed 13 civilians in Londonderry when they opened fire during a civil rights march. The army claimed it had come under attack. The locals claimed that the dead were unarmed. No weapons were recovered.

Significantly, another battle was going on behind the headlines. The army had been called in to assist the exhausted police, and gradually it assumed a major role. The army commander-in-chief took his orders from London, not from Northern Ireland politicians. But the major question remained - who had ``primacy,'' the police or the army?

Gradually, as the RUC became one of the best-equipped and best-trained forces in Western Europe, the police were moved back into the front-line, with the army in support. There were many reasons for this. Authorities realized that any army is a blunt weapon for keeping the peace. Also, a police force composed largely of local men and women have the best inside knowledge to protect their own territory.

The army continues to operate in Ulster in highly-specialized ways. There is always controversy over the use of the crack Special Air Service (SAS) for undercover and counter-terrorist duties: Since the mid-70s they have been operating to a greater or lesser degree, particularly in border areas. The army also provides a highly-efficient bomb disposal service to defuse terrorist bombs in Northern Ireland. Today the police and army work closely together.

Although the army would not have chosen Ulster as a training ground, with such formidable paramilitary enemies like the IRA and to a lesser degree the so-called Loyalist Protestants, it is clear that Northern Ireland has provided a most valuable military experience. The British Army is now one of the best equipped and best trained in the world to deal with urban guerrilla and localized violence, and while it is unlikely that a similar degree of violence could erupt and be sustained in Britain itself, the army is well-placed to deal with any such contingency.

In the long-term, however, the problems of Ulster will not be solved by military means alone.

Both the British Army and the paramilitaries have become more sophisticated, technologically and otherwise. The army now possesses the latest anti-terrorist equipment including night-sights and other aids to accuracy, while the IRA is desperately trying to develop rocket and anti-helicopter weaponry.

Both sides are deadlocked. The army cannot defeat the terrorists, except by using the kind of strong military tactics that the British politicians and people would not countenance. Equally the IRA, despite intermittent anti-army atrocities which momentarily capture the headlines, is in no position to defeat the British militarily. And there is no evidence of any significant headway being made by the ``Troops Out'' lobby in Britain.

The sad reality of the army in Ulster, 20 years on, is that no one can win the battle. The point was well put by General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, a military consultant and former Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland in the early 70s. He wrote recently ``Neither the RUC nor the army has solved the Ulster problem. That is now as on the day when the two became a team, a matter for government - the Civil Power - and people.'' By maintaining an uneasy peace the security forces still protect the people from the logic of their own prejudices and fears. Some individuals appreciate the cost of that peacekeeping, but for the army it has been largely a thankless task.

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