If the long-delayed findings of Britain’s Iraq Inquiry, led from 2009 to 2011 by senior civil servant Sir John Chilcot, have driven a stake through the political legacy of former United Kingdom prime minister, Tony Blair, it is pretty clear that they have done much the same thing for the reputation of the British Armed Forces. The generals and Ministry of Defence officials who testified before the investigation or issued statements to it appear as a deeply arrogant and self-regarding, though ultimately incompetent, group of individuals. One the one hand there are the crass references by witnesses to Britain’s colonial wars, Malaya, Ireland and so on, and the supposed “expertise” this has endowed the UK with when it came to fighting an indigenous insurgency. On the other hand the unpreparedness of the British government and military, the lack of resources, planning and general mismanagement, not to mention the inefficiency of serving troops, can be detected throughout the otherwise self-serving accounts.
Of course, my primary interest lies with the numerous mentions of Ireland and Irish-related matters, well over 200, in the various witness statements on the inquiry’s main website. It’s safe to say that the British drew some wrong, and ultimately self-defeating, conclusions from their experiences during the thirty-year course of the Long War in the north-east of this country. I won’t go onto the all the documents now, as I am still reading through them, but here are some interesting snippets.
Firstly is the frequent mentions of Ireland by the chairman of the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, where he served as the “Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office” for many years, as well as later working with the Security Service, SS or MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS or MI6. With all the fondness of a colonial governor he reminisces about his experiences among the unruly Irish natives:
“THE CHAIRMAN: Forgive me, this is pure nostalgia, but does it resemble the use of the spearhead battalion for Northern Ireland campaign?
GEN SIR PETER WALL: Yes, that sort of thing.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: I think we are going to impose a self-denying ordnance on the Chairman on his Northern Ireland recollections!”
Other recollections are not so fond, in this admittance of the vast military presence required by Britain to maintain the borders of its shrunken colony on this island nation:
“THE CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Whenever Northern Ireland is mentioned I cannot resist saying something. I think if you simply scale up population to security forces on the ground, you would need at least 500,000 in Iraq to get the same degree of intense coverage that we had in Northern Ireland through the most difficult decades.”
On the rapid development of improvised military technology and weapons by the main parties in the otherwise disparate Iraqi insurgency:
“GENERAL THE LORD WALKER: The thing that I think shocked everybody was the advent of the suicide bomb. We hadn’t experienced that anywhere else, not in any quantity, and the other thing, I think, that shocked us was the extent to which the technology — and this is where your Iranian influence comes in, I’m sure — had, in the very short period we were there, achieved in about six months what it took the IRA in Northern Ireland to achieve over 30-odd years.
So the rate of technological development of the enemies’ IEDs, explosives and operating methods was just fantastically high.”
“David Williams: The most serious threat facing UK personnel in Iraq (military and civilian) is that from Radio‑Controlled (RC) IEDs. It took PIRA [the Provisional IRA] some years to develop RCIEDs and associated tactics successfully. By contrast, as a result of state‑sponsored activity, FRL (Former Regime Loyalists) forces, already well equipped and experienced, were able to mount attacks of similar technical sophistication in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere in Iraq without a pause after the fall of the Ba’athist Regime…”
A casual admittance of the British Army’s observation of a “no-go” zone, varying in width, along the border between the Six Counties and the rest of Ireland, in this discussion of the Snatch Land Rover; a lightly-armoured patrol jeep developed in the early 1990s for military and paramilitary forces in the UK-occupied region:
“THE CHAIRMAN: …the story starts, I suppose, in your time as GOC, when you needed some sort of protected mobility, protected against small arms fire and that sort of thing. As I understand it, your headquarters said the best thing we could have is a variant, at
least, of the Snatch Landrover.
Now, the MOD staff report in two years later, saying Snatch was clearly not designed or capable of countering RPGs or mines or IEDs. But these threats were only, if at all, just beginning to manifest themselves in your time.
Can you just take us briefly into the need for Snatch as it then stood, or was capable of being up-armoured, and the threat against which you needed it?
LT GEN SIR GRAEME LAMB: The first point we faced was driving around in tanks and Warriors was not conducive to not being seen as a force of occupation.
The second one is there’s just logistics. You have got what you have got, and therefore you’re trying to operate around that.
…But the idea of getting some sort of less aggressive means to transport people around was necessary.
We had a couple of incidents where people were killed where they weren’t in armoured vehicles. They were just under standard SUVs, trying to blend in. So we had to therefore create an interim solution. So my view was: what have you got available, whether it’s something on wheels — it’s Snatch.
We had a couple of incidents I think I lost an EOD operator, for instance, from basically — after those mine type — not an EFP at that time, which just went straight through the side of the Snatch, as RPGs would do. So I was acutely aware that Mr Snatch was not designed [for 21st century urban warfare] — it was an extension of the old Macrolowe Landrover in Northern Ireland —
THE CHAIRMAN: I was going to say, from ancient memory, there were RPGs up against straight Landrovers in Northern Ireland.
LT GEN SIR GRAEME LAMB: Correct. But, you know, equally in Northern Ireland we didn’t drive vehicles south of whichever line it was for 20 years because of the threat of massive IEDs that were being placed in the road.”
As with the war in Ireland, the political, legal and propaganda necessity of not calling violent resistance to a foreign military presence, an “insurgency”:
“SIR RODERIC LYNE: You both said that in the time you were there the generals on the ground were not allowed to use the word “counter-insurgency” to describe the situation, that there was a ban from Secretary Rumsfeld, who didn’t like this word. To what extent do you feel that backseat driving from Washington by Donald Rumsfeld was actually constraining and inhibiting the people in charge on the ground dealing with the problem?
LT GEN SIR JOHN KISZELY: Well, certainly when I arrived, the word “insurgency” was discouraged because, as I said, he had been asked, “Is this an insurgency?” and he had made it absolutely plain that in his view it wasn’t.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: But the generals thought it was? That was their appreciation?
LT GEN SIR JOHN KISZELY: Gradually, I think people understood that it was but, to start with, we didn’t use the word, just as we didn’t use the word in Northern Ireland. We said we were involved in military aid to the civil power rather than counter-insurgency, and there is always a reluctance, obviously, politically, to admit that you are in an insurgency, but gradually this became the accepted parlance because people knew they were in an insurgency.”
Some British officials clearly hoped to keep then United States president George Bush at a distance from dealing the conflict in Iraq as well as minimising US involvement in the peace process between Ireland and Britain, a Washington-backed settlement many UK officials had ambiguous feelings about:
“SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER: I remember her saying to me, “We don’t want President Bush to become the Middle East desk officer like Bill Clinton”, because Clinton was in the final throes of trying to fix the Arab/Israel problem, which eventually failed, and nor are we terribly keen of [him] doing that in Northern Ireland either.”
Finally the disgraced former paramilitary police force in the north of Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), is continuously referred to in eye-witnesses testimonies made to the inquiry. It is clear that former officers of the RUC, and their successors in the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), were central to Britain’s disastrous counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq:
“Colin FW Smith QPM: …In Iraq this was a pool of excellent, professional, experienced, ex-Royal Ulster Constabulary [RUC] Special Branch officers who had retired early following the transition of the RUC into the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This frontline experience [often 25 years plus per officer] could not , and still in 2010, cannot, be replicated by the US or other coalition partners.”
Given the dreadful historical reputation of the RUC and its personnel I’m pretty doubtful that anyone would want to replicate its experiences. Aside from those dictatorships and regimes currently employing ex-RUC men in mercenary roles across the Middle East and Africa (as of course happened with former RIC officers and gunmen in the 1920s).