I have argued in several recent articles that the United Kingdom’s continued inability to accept the unvarnished history of the Irish-British Troubles, the decades-long conflict in the UK-administered north-east of Ireland, poses a serious threat to ongoing peaceful relations within this island and between it and its newly isolationist neighbour to the east. The dangers posed by this historical denialism is aptly illustrated by the increasingly popular British belief that the Long War of 1966 to 2005 came to an end with the abject “defeat” of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Despite all evidence to the contrary, much of it contemporary, this “alternative fact” has gained respectability among opinion-makers in Britain, particularly on the political right (though echoes of it can also be found in centrist and left-wing sources). This false reading of events leading up to and during the “peace process” of the 1990s, including the carefully choreographed negotiations and reciprocal confidence-building measures of the period, has pushed aside the once common recognition by the UK that the multiparty settlement of 1998 grew out of a military stalemate between the Irish Republican Army and the British Occupation Forces (BOF).
The IRA cannot be defeated
Even a cursory glance at the historical record of the last two decades of violence in the north of Ireland reveals ample evidence of the pressures facing those engaged in the conflict, pressures which moved them towards a compromise deal. By the end of the 1980s a number of key political and military leaders in Britain had privately concluded that the Irish insurgency was too deeply embedded to be overcome by the United Kingdom’s counterinsurgency policies. This was reflected in a controversial admission by Sir James M. Glover, the former Commander-in-Chief of the UK Land Forces, to the journalist Peter Taylor during a television documentary first shown on February the 21st 1988:
”In no way, can or will the Provisional Irish Republican Army ever be defeated militarily.”
Glover’s words repeated a secret assessment that he had made ten years earlier for the Defence Intelligence Staff called Northern Ireland: Future Terrorist Trends, which was distributed internally within the army in November of 1978. This document was based on his evaluation of the situation in the contested region, which led him to conclude that the Irish Republican Army could sustain its war effort indefinitely (ironically, the IRA’s Intelligence Department intercepted a postal delivery of the original report which it made public in 1979, to the acute embarrassment of the government in London).
Around the same time as the broadcast on the BBC a strategist in Belfast with Britain’s Security Service (SS or MI5) produced a report suggesting future options for increased “anti-PIRA propaganda” in the war-torn territory. The classified document noted that:
It has been agreed that disruption is the alternative as recruitment of PIRA players has proved impossible, and this would provide an ideal opportunity for unnerving the unrecruitable.
The inability of the British to recruit or plant significant numbers of agents in the ranks of the IRA, despite some two decades of strenuous effort, clearly indicated the stalled nature of Britain’s campaign strategy in the late 1980s.
(The memo was made public in 2012 as part of the UK government report by Sir Desmond de Silva into the assassination of the Irish human rights lawyer Pat Finucane by a British-run death squad in 1989. Despite its importance the briefing note was studiously ignored by the press in the United Kingdom.)
Making Peace not War
Some saw General Glover’s TV interview as a public overture to the Republican Movement by a well-regarded establishment figure, and several more were to follow, including a statement in December of 1989 by the then secretary of state for “Northern Ireland”, Peter Brooke, in which he accepted that it was “…difficult to envision a military defeat” of the IRA.
This fatalistic attitude among some senior government minsters and officials eventually led to renewed “back channel” contacts between republicans and the British in 1990-1993 using lines of communication in place since the early 1970s (these had previously served as conduits for negotiations in 1971-72, 1974-5 and 1980-83). The tentative outreach through intermediaries led to a string of messages back and forth across the Irish Sea, resulting in mixed reactions from those in-the-know on the British side. While some were vigorously opposed to any talks, let alone negotiations, with the IRA others took a more pragmatic approach, laying the groundwork for an inevitable move to public discussions. On the 11th of January 1992 the normally hawkish Times newspaper published a leaked presentation from a “senior British Army officer”, widely understood to be General Sir John Wilsey, the General Officer Commanding the UK Forces in the Six Counties, giving a “depressingly realistic assessment” of the Irish Republican Army:
“…defeat of the IRA is not on the horizon while current security policies are maintained.
[it is] …better equipped, better resourced, better led, bolder and more secure against our penetration than at any time before. They are an absolutely formidable enemy. The essential attributes of their leaders are better than ever before. Some of their operations are brilliant. If we don’t intern its a long haul.
The government knows it is up against not a bunch of evil, psychopathic criminals, as its propaganda has tried to suggest, but a highly disciplined and political, motivated guerrilla army.”
Clearly the political and media classes along with the general public in Britain were being softened up for what was to follow, notably with the Joint Declaration on Peace (more commonly known as the Downing Street Declaration) issued by the UK premier John Major and his opposite number in Ireland, Albert Reynolds, on December 15th 1993. The Irish Republican Army eventually responded to this gesture with a three-day “temporary cessation of hostilities” in April of 1994 followed by a penultimate ceasefire on the 31st of August, having adopted a refined strategy known as TUAS or “Tactical Use of Armed Struggle”.
(The announcement at the end of August came three months after the “Mull of Kintyre Chinook Crash“, which occurred on the 2nd of June 1994. This helicopter accident in the south-west of Scotland led to the deaths of twenty-five senior counterinsurgency strategists, from the military, police and intelligence services. It is widely accepted that the crippling loss of leadership deeply effected British thinking during the private negotiations with the Republican Movement in the summer of ’94. Despite several subsequent inquiries the incident remains the subject of much controversy and speculation.)
The armistice broke down on the 9th of February 1996 as the IRA launched a new military offensive in the occupied north-east of Ireland and in Britain. Despite the seventeen month duration of the truce the insurgents proved themselves to be more than capable of returning to war, in line with the confident TUAS policy. The deployment of “block-buster” strikes against major economic targets in the UK was stepped up, following the guerrillas’ discovery of the Achilles’ Heel of the British state in April 1992 with a devastating attack on the City of London’s financial district (the Baltic Exchange bombing). Hurried behind-the-scenes negotiations, accelerated by a new Labour Party government in Britain under Tony Blair, quickly resulted in a deal which led to the final IRA ceasefire of July 20th 1997, as the insurgency displayed its ability to turn on and off their operations at will.
The IRA and Sinn Féin in the Driving Seat
At no point during this early period of the peace process did the Irish Republican Army, or Sinn Féin, show any sign of military or political weakness, nor was there any indication that the armed resistance against the British occupation of the Six Counties was in crisis. On the contrary, the underground movement was clearly negotiating from a position of strength in terms of insurgent volunteers, weapons, equipment, intelligence, operational freedom, finances, votes, localised support or toleration, and the threat proffered against major governmental, communications and economic targets in Britain. The outcome of the adaptable TUAS plan lent weight to the widespread belief among the UK and international press that the combined leadership of the Republican Movement was in the driving seat of the negotiations.
In time, the outcome of the peace process was the multiparty and inter-governmental Belfast or Good Friday Agreement reached on the 10th of April 1998, which was built upon in several subsequent accords. The deal was followed some years later by the announcement of a permanent cessation of operations by the Irish Republican Army on the 28th of July 2005. The four decades of the Long War or Troubles, which began with three separate murders by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a pro-British terror faction, in June of 1966, effectively came to an end on this date.
The British Army Assessment
Reacting to the events of the previous year, in 2006 General Sir Mike Jackson, Britain’s chief of the general staff and the administrative head of the UK’s armed forces, ordered an overview of the counterinsurgency war in Ireland, intended for internal distribution among the military and government. This was carried out by three senior officers over a period of six months. Discovered during research by the Pat Finucane Centre, an Irish human rights body, the document, Operation Banner, An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland, was forcibly made public in July 2007, to the chagrin of the British authorities, leading to a notable headline by the BBC:
Army paper says IRA not defeated
Army concedes for first time it did not win the battle against the IRA
An internal British army document examining 37 years of deployment in Northern Ireland contains the claim by one expert that it failed to defeat the IRA.
In fact the unsurprisingly self-serving assessment tried to have it both ways by arguing that the British Occupation Forces had defeated the IRA’s “insurgency” between 1971 and 1972 while accepting that it had failed to defeat the IRA’s “terrorism” between 1972 and 1997 (a footnote strongly implies that the “insurgent form” of the IRA was in fact not “defeated” until 1980). Considering that the latter period lasted for twenty-five years, the congratulatory back-slapping tone of the document was deservedly ridiculed by a number of seasoned commentators. The final conclusion in the ninety-eight page booklet was characterised by many as a poor defence of Britain’s war-fighting record in the Six Counties, which led not to a victory but a precarious stalemate:
Martin van Creveld has said that the British Army is unique in Northern Ireland in its success against an irregular force. It should be recognised that the Army did not ‘win’ in any recognisable way; rather it achieved its desired end-state, which allowed a political process to be established…
Despite its many factual errors in dates and events, its glaring lack of opinion on the United Kingdom’s co-option of pro-British terrorist gangs as part its counterinsurgency campaign, or indeed the use of death squads, torture-centres, interment, expulsion orders, and the whole paraphernalia of the “Dirty War”, the analysis is widely regarded as the official military view of the UK on the Troubles in Ireland. And nowhere does it use the word “victory”.
Sourcing the Myth of the IRA’s Military Defeat
So where did this dangerous and pernicious myth of a “defeated IRA” come from? Professor Paul Dixon of Kingston University has published a number of books and essays pointing the finger at several right-wing or nationalist figures in Britain, some of whom he has labelled as neo-conservatives. In a 2012 article, Did the British Intelligence and Security services defeat the IRA?, the author has this to say:
The orthodox view of the peace process is that the British government and the IRA fought each other to a stalemate and that a powersharing government thus resulted from negotiations with ”terrorists”. More recently, Neoconservatives and some in the security forces have begun to claim that the IRA was ”defeated” by the British Intelligence and Security Forces in the early Nineties and that the peace process was a matter of negotiating their surrender.
According to this view, the IRA surrendered because of the effectiveness of the British ”dirty war” against them. The dirty war consisted of a ”shoot to kill” policy against the IRA, collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in the targeting of Republicans, and the penetration of the IRA by informers at the highest levels.
The advocates of the IRA defeat thesis are British Neoconservatives, members of the security forces and Republican Dissidents, who have generally been united in their opposition to the peace process. The most ambitious articulation of the ”IRA defeat” thesis comes from… John Bew, Martin Frampton and Inigo Gurruchaga’s book Talking to Terrorists (2009).
British soldiers state that their defeat of the IRA enhances the army’s claim to be able to deal successfully with counterinsurgency. Champions of the old Royal Ulster Constabulary claim success for the tougher tactics employed by the RUC, an implicit criticism of the new, reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland.
On the Republican side, there are also Dissidents opposed to the peace process. These have attacked the Republican leadership for betraying the IRA volunteers who were killed during the conflict and the cause of Irish unity. They criticise the Sinn Féin leadership for their deceptions and compromises with the British and Irish governments. Dissidents claim that the British so effectively penetrated the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership that the Republican movement effectively became controlled by the British state. Paradoxically, therefore, militaristic unionist Neoconservatives and Republican Dissidents echo and reinforce each other’s critique of the Sinn Féin leadership and claim that the IRA were defeated.
The security forces certainly played their role in containing the Republican threat but it was the important role played by politicians and others involved in complex and morally difficult political negotiations and diplomacy that more convincingly explains the success of the peace process. This is why the peace process did not represent the IRA’s surrender but involved tortuous negotiations, morally difficult compromises and a high degree of uncertainty as to the intentions of the Republican leadership and its ability to deliver their movement.
Professor Dixon suggests that the supposed “defeat” of the Irish Republican Army can be countered with the following arguments:
- None of the major actors involved in the Irish-British peace process, including significant political and diplomatic figures from the period, many serving in some capacity with the governments of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States, claim that the IRA was defeated. Tellingly, this allegation largely post-dates 2007.
- The British Forces in Ireland had predicted on many occasions between 1969 and 1997 that the Irish Republican Army was on the precipice of defeat, only to be proven wrong. This was particularly true in 1971-72, 1975-76, 1980-82 and 1987-88. In fact many of those periods saw the UK government pursuing behind-the-scenes talks with the insurgency or its representatives.
- There is strong evidence that the peace process was emerging well before the early 1990s. This suggests that the negotiations grew from a situation of stalemate rather than defeat. It’s likely that Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader, was crafting a “dual track” refinement of the armed struggle from the early to mid-1980s.
- The integrity of the Republican Movement had been threatened by informers and spies since the earliest days of the war but it had successfully adopted countermeasures against this vulnerability in the 1970s and ’80s. The risk of traitors had done little to curtail the insurgency from running highly effective operations right up to its final ceasefire in 1997. Indeed the guerrillas had marked up several remarkable intelligence successes of their own, including busting open the covert operations of the Security Service or MI5 in Europe. In the words of the 2012 report by Sir Desmond da Silva in 1989, the IRA was able to maintain a “…number of sources working for the security forces in some capacity” throughout the conflict.
- There is a lack of contemporaneous evidence that the British Forces, military or paramilitary, believed that the Irish Republican Army had been defeated. The 1978 secret army report accepted the effectiveness of the IRA and was doubtful that it could be overcome. After retiring from the army in the late 1980s General Glover had argued that Gerry Adams was “a man with whom we can do business with” and that, “The Army’s role has been now for some time… to help create the conditions whereby a full democratic, peaceful, political solution can be achieved”
- The Irish Republican Army’s overseas military campaign in Britain during the 1990s suggested that the insurgency was relatively free to strike at will. These attacks included: a vehicle-borne multiple mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that almost killed the prime minister and his cabinet in February 1991; the “block-buster” bombing of the Baltic Exchange in the City of London in April 1992; the Bishopsgate bombing in the City of London 1993; dummy mortar attacks on Heathrow international airport over three days in March 1994; the bombing of Canary Wharf and Manchester city-centre in 1996, and so on. It is utterly implausible that the British would have allowed such devastating, resistance-enhancing attacks to go ahead in order to protect the identity of supposed agents in the IRA. The cumulative economic, commercial and security costs of these attacks in the ’90s was certainly in the billions of pounds sterling, threatening London’s powerful position as a world financial centre. The propaganda losses were even higher. This gave the guerrillas substantial leverage over subsequent talks.
- Proponents of the defeat thesis try to defend their claim by arguing that a ”draw” or ”stalemate” in the conflict between the British state and the Irish Republican Army represents the ”effective defeat” of the insurgents because they did not achieve their objective: a 32 County Socialist Republic within a reunited Ireland. If this is the case then, arguably, all the parties to the Good Friday Agreement were ”defeated” because none of them achieved their stated or long-term objectives (unionists or the British hardly wanted ”terrorists in government”, for example). The defeat thesis tends to be advocated by militarists or “securocrats” who believe that in war the only choice is between defeat and victory and, therefore, encourage the escalation of violence to achieve the latter.
To the above points one could add historical evidence that Britain’s war effort appeared to have developed a crisis of confidence in the late 1980s and early ’90s. This can be evidenced by:
- The imposition of explicit censorship against Sinn Féin and representatives of the Irish Republican Army in the British media through the television and radio broadcasting ban of 1988 (this was lifted in 1994 as a reciprocal gesture to republicans, never to be reimposed again despite renewed violence in 1996-97).
- The attempt to bring pro-UK or unionist terrorist factions, notably the UDA-UFF and the UVF, under the full direction of the British state through the aegis of the RUC Special Branch (RUC SB), the Intelligence Corps (Int Corps) and the Security Service (SS or MI5).
- The increased supply of intelligence, weapons, ammunition and explosives to the British terrorist gangs, primarily by the Intelligence Corps (Int Corps) and the Security Service (SS or MI5), leading to some disagreements with the RUC and the Secret Service (SIS or MI6), and without government sanction.
- Increased use of helicopters for movement of troops and paramilitary police, greatly reducing ground patrols and convoys, coupled with a necessary deployment of de facto helicopter gunships to escort flights.
- A significant withdrawal of the British Occupation Forces from a number of “no-go” areas along the border (some of which were still in existence by 2006 as noted in Operation Banner, An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland).
- Substantial upgrading of fortified bases, checkpoints and watchtowers against insurgent attacks, including the projected use of Israeli military construction contractors (this was prevented for both reasons of costs and fears of damage to the then tentative back-channel talks). The proximate cause of the massive building programme was the growing sophistication of IRA attacks, notably the use of “barrack buster” mortars and heavy machine guns.
- Increased use of “human shields” to protect vulnerable military installations. This was achieved by placing garrisons among densely populated civilian houses, businesses and schools in order to deter attacks by local guerrilla units. This was especially true near the “no-go” zones established by the IRA along patches of the north-south border.
- The reaching of a publicly unacknowledged but relatively well-known “truce” in the city of Derry between the Irish Republican Army and the British Forces in the late 1980s, leading to a substantial reduction in the UK military presence and the virtual “liberation” of the area. This was the so-called “Derry Experiment”.
- The formation of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), a fundamentalist UK terrorist gang, in 1996 under the direction of anti-peace process elements of the British Army’s Intelligence Corps (Int Corps) fearful of a “sell-out” to the IRA.
- A greatly increased reliance upon special forces units instead of the regular army to combat IRA operations, notably with the enhanced deployment of the Special Air Service (SAS), and increased tours of duty by “tough” units like the Parachute Regiment (notably, some 90% of civilian deaths by the British Forces from 1969 to 2005 can be attributed to the “Paras”).
- The acceptance that the substantial rearmament programme undertaken by the Irish Republican Army in 1985-86, with several tonnes of imported munitions secreted in purpose-built arms dumps and bunkers across Ireland, was enough to sustain the “campaign of terrorism” for another two decades.
- Increasing concerns about the considerable resources the IRA was devoting to weapons development and procurement. Aside from the arms mentioned above, a virtual light industry of workshops and assembly lines under the control of the Engineering Department were producing heavier and more effective explosive projectiles and bombs.
Ian Hurst/Martin Ingram and the Spies in the IRA Claim
Finally, one needs to address the post-conflict claims of the British “superspy” Ian Hurst which have been feted by the press and conspiracy theorists in the United Kingdom for the last two decades. The English-born soldier originally served as a lance corporal with the Intelligence Corps (Int Corps) in the north-east of Ireland from late 1981 to 1983, working primarily as a clerical officer. During the last year of this tour he acted as a data “collator” for the Force Research Unit (FRU), a notorious army grouping linked to a spate of atrocities by pro-British gunmen and bombers. This provided him with limited access to information gathered by the UK forces in the territory, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s controversial Special Branch squad.
Following deployments in Britain and Belize he returned to the Six Counties in the latter half of 1987, serving as a sergeant in the Fermanagh area. During his final years in Ireland he was seconded to a regional wing of the FRU, allegedly working as a “handler” for undercover agents. In 1991 he was again assigned back to London, taking an office position with a section of the Ministry of Defence, before applying for early retirement in the same year.
By 1999 the former soldier was auctioning his alleged exploits to the press in London, the right-wing Sunday Times newspaper taking the opportunity to print them under the pseudonym of “Martin Ingram” (the liberal Guardian title would follow suit in a similar fashion some time later). The series of sensationalist stories first appeared in August and would go on to attract considerable publicity and government frustration during a delicate time in the peace process, some officials fearing permanent damage to the ongoing post-agreement talks. In a prominent feature printed on the 21st of November 1999 with the headline, “Listening devices take the place of agents“, the former sergeant indicated that a majority of the intelligence gathered by the UK Forces on the Irish Republican Army since the 1980s had come through electronic surveillance and not spies or informers.
Using the attention garnered by the unquestioning adulation of the press, Ian Hurst went on to become a regular “go-to” security source for the media. Unfortunately the final cessation of IRA operations in 2005 saw his profitable star beginning to wane until he returned in 2006 with a shock announcement that, contrary to his earlier stories, double-agents in the ranks of the Irish insurgency had in fact been a crucial weapon in the British arsenal all along.
According to the former soldier a remarkable one in every twenty volunteers of the Irish Republican Army had been an informer for the UK authorities during the latter half of the conflict, while “higher up” it was supposedly one in every three. By 2011 this figure had risen to one in every four for lower ranks with one in every two senior activists working as spies. Another revision in 2012 led to the claim that “half” of the IRA’s ruling Army Council in the ’90s was made up of double-agents who were feeding information to the British (given that the leadership was seven-strong, Hurst failed to specify if this was three or four individuals).
A simple comparison of the ex-soldier’s figures with public statements from the era illustrates the risible nature of his claims. By 1994 the authorities in the United Kingdom and Ireland were briefing journalists that the Irish Republican Army had a minimum of 500 volunteers or members, of whom around 200-250 were on active service: that is, engaged in guerrilla attacks in the Six Counties and overseas (this excluded a lesser number who were serving time as political prisoners or prisoners of war, living abroad – on-the-runs but still active – or working in the auxiliary and civil administrations). If Hurst’s allegations were accepted at least 125 of these men and women were acting as “touts” or spies and informers in the 1990s, a clearly untenable number. Factor in the 1 in 2 claim and that would probably rise to 200 men and women out of 500!
Unfortunately for Ian Hurst his press-buoyed fame led him to overstep the mark and submit himself to judicial research and questioning by the United Kingdom’s investigation into the historical Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1972, the seminal moment in the early days of the Troubles when the British forces attacked a civil rights’ march in the city of Derry, murdering fourteen men and boys. The official report into the war-crime, published on the 15th of June 2010 as the Bloody Sunday or Saville Inquiry, concluded that:
147.270 – We are of the view that Martin Ingram [Hurst] to a substantial degree exaggerated the importance of his role at HQNI and his level of knowledge and access to intelligence.
This assessment of the “superspy” was repeated again in the 2012 government review of the assassination of the Belfast human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane, conducted by Sir Desmond de Silva:
21.203 This evidence that Hurst had previously exaggerated his level of knowledge of such events must invariably lead me to treat any allegations made by him with caution.
In summary, I am left in significant doubt as to whether Ian Hurst was in a position to have the degree of detailed knowledge [he claimed]
A further blow to Ian Hurst’s tattered credibility came in 2013 with the publication of an Irish government inquiry into the deaths of two senior RUC officers, Bob Buchanan and Harry Breen, in a 1989 ambush carried out by the South Armagh Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. The Smithwick Report concluded in relation to Hurst that:
16.7.3 Given the striking inconsistency between his Statement of Intended Evidence and his Oral Evidence, and given the changing nature of his oral evidence in relation to when, how often, and in what specific context he had seen Owen Corrigan’s name in intelligence documents, I simply did not find Mr Hurst to be a credible witness.
16.7.4 As regards his account of his conversations with Witness 82 in relation to Owen Corrigan, Mr Hurst fairly acknowledged that I would have to reach a determination that either he or Witness 82 was lying. Having carefully considered the evidence of both gentlemen, I prefer the direct and straightforward evidence of Witness 82.
16.7.6 In the circumstances, therefore, I attach no weight to the evidence given by Ian Hurst to this Tribunal.
Given the above judgements against the confused and contradictory testimonies of Ian Hurst/Martin Ingram it is extraordinary that his claims still form the basis of newspaper articles and academic studies examining the latter years of the war in the north-east of Ireland. Or indeed of the fantastical “IRA defeated” theory.
Hopefully this inevitably short summary of the early days of the Irish-British peace process has illustrated some of the evidence for its development, showing the manner in which the entrenched participants in the decades long war moved towards negotiations instead of fighting. First and foremost is the inescapable conclusion that the main antagonists, the Irish Republican Army and the British Occupation Forces, were locked into a military stalemate by the early 1990s, one that slightly favoured the former over the latter when it came to making peace. As Henry Kissinger summarised in 1969 in a long essay examining the US defeat in Vietnam:
“We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”