In retrospect it seemed inevitable that the Irish Republican Army would emerge largely undefeated from twenty years of conflict with the British Armed Forces in the occupied north-east of Ireland. Despite the ongoing “Troubles”, the daily contest of insurgency and counterinsurgency in the disputed region and beyond, the United Kingdom had been negotiating intermittently with the underground movement since at least 1972. In the summer of that year Frank Steele, a member of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), and Philip John Woodfield, a senior government official, had met two representatives of the IRA’s ruling Army Council at a house in rural Derry. These were Dáithí Ó Conaill, the Quartermaster General, and Gerry Adams, Officer Commanding the Belfast Brigade. From that moment onward “back-channel” communications became a reoccurring feature of the war, coming to the fore again in 1974-76 and 1980-83.
Three years before the penultimate IRA ceasefire of April 1994, the British sought a new round of secret discussions from the summer of 1990 using the services of Michael Oatley, an experienced SIS/MI6 officer well-known to the Republican Movement, and Brendan Duddy, a local Derry businessman with the codename of “Contact”. While Duddy acted as the prime conduit for the talks, two other figures played an ancillary role. These were Denis Bradley, a former local priest turned community leader, and Noel Gallagher or “Tax”, who was close to the Derryman Martin McGuinness, GOC of the Northern Command, a member of the GHQ Staff and Army Council, and vice-president of Sinn Féin (Gallagher appears to have also acted as an intermediary for the Irish government).
These tentative negotiations resulted in the famous meeting between a soon-to-be-retired Oatley, code-named “Mountain Climber”, and Martin McGuinness at a house in the city of Derry in October 1990 (other accounts say January-February 1991), with Duddy in attendance. Oatley’s role was later taken up in June 1991 by a former MI6/SIS agent working under the direction of the Security Service (SS or MI5) as the UK agencies vied with each other for control of a process many hoped would lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This still mysterious figure had the codename “Fred”, though he also assumed the nom de guerre of Colin Ferguson, though his real name may have been Robert McLarnon (or McLaren). The communications between the Republican Movement and the authorities in Britain, both in person and via third-parties, continued throughout the 1990s, including the return to war in February 1996 and the final ceasefire in July 1997 (tellingly, the British were still negotiating the actual cessation of the armed struggle seven years later, which came with a formal announcement by the Irish Republican Army in September 2005).
Subsequent to the official end of the war in the mid-2000s the leadership of the British Army attempted to excuse its failure to defeat the IRA in the 1970s and ’80s by retroactively claiming that its actual strategy was to “create the conditions where politics would replace terrorism“. In reality, of course, it was the success of the latter which led to the primacy of the former. Simply put, the United Kingdom went to war in 1969-1970 with the intention of crushing the Republican Movement and it emerged from that war thirty-six years later with its formerly dismissed enemy acting on an equal footing with the government in London. While neither of the main parties to the conflict achieved their primary aims, the UK found it necessary to shoulder the heavier burden of compromise. In 1979 the hardline British secretary of state Roy Mason, part of the then Labour government of James Callaghan, confidently predicted to the metropolitan press that the IRA was “weeks away from defeat”. Ironically it was a Labour Party administration which would acknowledge the impossibility of that goal nearly two decades later by signing up to the multi-stranded Belfast Agreement of 1998.
Based upon a self-deluded reading of the history of the Long War, the so-called Irish-British Troubles, the United Kingdom’s armed forces have assumed the status of global experts on counterinsurgency. No other conventional army, they claim, has their experience or knowledge in the military and political methods required to defeat a guerrilla or terrorist insurrection. This was certainly the boastful position the UK generals and officials adopted during the 2001-2003 invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. For a time, believing the propaganda peddled by the anglophone and anglophile press at home and abroad, even the United States military bought into the narrative until they saw the British in action.
Claire Duncanson, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, has examined the out-working of this in some detail:
Wise Britain and Cowboy America
A discourse of British expertise at counterinsurgency operations dominated as the British entered Basra, Iraq’s second biggest city, in March 2003. The British Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual of 2001 claimed that “The experience of numerous small wars has provided the British Army with a unique insight into this demanding form of conflict”, and this claim was echoed by military scholars in both the UK and US (Mockaitis 1990, 146; Nagl 2002; Cassidy 2004). The consensus was that while the UK ‘got’ counterinsurgency, the US decidedly did not (Betz and Cormack 2009; also see Devenny and McLean 2005; Porter 2010).
From the outset, British soldiers contrasted their approach to the mission with that of their US allies. General Sir Mike Jackson, then Head of the British Army, attributed the chaos in Baghdad to the American’s excessively combative and confrontational style: ‘Part of the problem was the posture of the US army in their tanks, in their Darth Vader kit with the wraparound sunglasses and helmets and flak jackets and everything else. There was no real rapport between the US army and ordinary citizens’ (cited in Ledwidge 2011, 31). British soldiers on the ground identified with and reinforced this discourse, such as Kevin Mervin, who noted in his account of the conflict: ‘You simply cannot stop a British soldier from having a laugh with locals; it’s in our blood to make friends and help where we can, and always will be. Winning the hearts and minds, I think it’s called’ (Mervin 2005, 199). Another British soldier reported to a journalist that ‘We are trained for every inevitability and we do this better than the Americans’ (Harman 2003).
Crucially, this supposed expertise was not just presented as a question of tactics or best practice. It was presented as a question of identity – this is who we are: civilized, rational, moderate, intelligent, pragmatic, and restrained. In part resulting from the way in which comparatively limited resources in the second world war encouraged British soldiers to construct masculinity around “natural superiority” rather than show of force, “an understated professionalism” and sense of “decency, honour and fair play” have come to define British military masculinity (Rose 2004; Higate 2012).
The military narrative of British expertise at winning hearts and minds was echoed in wider British societal discourse of the time, reinforcing the sense of wise Britain and cowboy America. British military historian John Keegan wrote in his account of the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “As the entry into Basra was to prove, the British Army’s mastery of the methods of urban warfare is transferable. What had worked in Belfast could be made to work again in Basra” (Keegan 2004, 175–6).
In fact the terrible truth about Britain’s fighting ability against a guerrilla foe, the same ability it displayed in Ireland, was about to come to the fore.
Busting the Myth of British Expertise
As the 2000s progressed, three developments combined to challenge the narrative of British superiority at counterinsurgency and stabilisation operations. The first was the development of new US doctrine and practice. The US military adapted their approach, aiming to be more population-centric; that is, minimizing civilian casualties, and taking risks to get better intelligence so as to be able to target hardliners whilst attempting to win over other insurgents and to build relations with the civilian population (Wither 2009). The second was the increasingly apparent failure of the British Army to achieve security in Basra. Whilst this can be attributed to a number of causes, not all British inadequacies, the experience went some way to puncture the myth of particular proficiency (Betz and Cormack 2009; Dodge 2010; Ucko 2010). The third was the exposure of the brutality of many historical counterinsurgency campaigns fought by the British, such as Malaya, Kenya, and Northern Ireland. Many recent accounts now testify to the way in which any particular British expertise at restraining the use of force always been a myth (Anderson 2005; Hack 1999; Stubbs 1993). By the time of the ‘surge’ of American troops in Iraq in 2008, there was little basis, if indeed there ever had been, for claims of British expertise.
Interestingly, when we turn to British military masculinities in Afghanistan, despite a) the myth busting – in Iraq and historical campaigns, b) new doctrine and practice by US, and c) the very real difficulties of actually ascertaining whether force used in Iraq and Afghanistan is ‘minimum’ or not (Bennet 2010), the British military discourse disparaging the US for being too gung-ho doesn’t disappear from British soldiers’ personal narratives about the war. It is less dominant than in reflections on Iraq, reflecting perhaps a growing acceptance within the British military that the rhetoric was indeed myth, but British soldiers based in Afghanistan continue to make statements about American incompetence at winning hearts and minds in their narratives.
In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the British discourse of the US as excessively violent and confrontational cowboy warriors proved fairly resilient in British soldiers’ personal narratives of serving in Afghanistan post 2008 (for more examples, see Duncanson 2013).
In other words, like the history and outcome of the Long War on this island nation, the British prefer the myth to the reality.
Note: “Fred”, aka. Colin Ferguson / Robert McLarnon (or McLaren), was eventually turned on by his immediate superiors in London when they realised how far he had gone in his personal commitments to Martin McGuinness, later joined by Gerry Kelly, another senior member of the IRA’s GHQ Staff, during the talks in Derry and elsewhere. By the end of 1993 he had been removed from the back-channel team but by then it was too late and Britain was already well down the road of negotiations with its Irish opponents. Michael Oatley and “Fred”, two UK intelligence agents, deserve far more credit for initiating peace from the British side than they have received so far.
Note: Richard A. E. North, author of the acclaimed study, Ministry of Defeat 2003–2009: The British in Iraq (2009), has argued that political and military analysts need to:
…challenge the perception (and claims) that the Army’s counterinsurgency operation in Northern Ireland was in any way a success.
But, to this day, the Army avers that its “great skills” at counter-insurgency were developed and honed in Northern Ireland, a false prospectus which surely cannot be allowed to stand (especially as the Army seems to have difficulties in recalling the lessons it learned). Did it – as some allege – murder and blunder its way through the campaign, just as it seems to have done with all its other poster-child campaigns such as Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus, or can what it says (in whole or part) be taken at face value?
Further, the perception that troops are immune from or above the law seems to survive in other operations, such as the occupation of southern Iraq, and the culture of violence to civilians and cover-up seems to continue to this day. Goodness knows what will emerge from Afghanistan.
These issues, it would seem to me, are not or should not be solely left wing concerns, but should be of interest to the political right. That they seem not to be is the unanswered mystery of this affair. What is going on? Why, even after the elapse of nearly 40 years, is the establishment so keen to bury the lessons (and the debate) instead of learning from them?