Current Affairs History Irish Republican Military Politics

An Army Humiliated, The British Military In Ireland, Afghanistan And Iraq

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 in 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 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”. The signing of the multi-stranded Belfast Agreement of 1998 by a Labour administration twenty years later gave lie to that knowingly false claim.

As Brendan Duffy, the chief go-between for the UK and the Republican Movement, pointed out during an interview in November 2009,

The choice was made by the British to end it [the campaign against the IRA]… England had decided the time had come to alter the structure in Ireland. And frankly all of us … were bit players in that bigger picture.

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 subsequently adopteded 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?


17 comments on “An Army Humiliated, The British Military In Ireland, Afghanistan And Iraq

  1. ar an sliabh

    That’s what they’ve always done. Write a pretty story, add a bunch of colourful drawings and schematics, and then call that “history.” In reality, they let a 50-something year old mum who’s head they partially blew off blinding her, bleed to death, never summoning any medical assistance whatsoever, all while that poor woman cried to the very end. But then – she was Irish. Didn’t need to make any friends or laugh with the locals there. They did indeed treat the Afghans and Iraqis better than that in the more recent times (not so much in the times of the Empire – but still better than the Irish, even then), but that was probably because they thought the Americans would rat them out. How anyone can think after all that, that they will ever view us as actual human beings, defies comprehension.


  2. Maybe the Brits were frustrated that the gung ho yanks weren’t buying into the Brits devious methods I.e fomenting sectarian conflict in regions in order to gain ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals? A kind of Stockholm syndrome whereby the oppressed turn to the oppressor for protection. We all remember the two Brit soldier terrorists caught with a car full of explosives, detonators etc in Basra I believe. The suspicion being that they were detonating bombs in both Shia and Sunni districts in order to engineer a conflict between both.
    The Brits were always yellow when it came to face to face conflict with a similar sized enemy I.e there was just as good chance of them dying as their foe. In fact U.S G.i’s in world war 2 scoffed the British input. The G.i’s noted that it was a regular occurrence for Brit officers to wave through US marines up to the frontline. Yip, they like others to do their fighting and bleeding and then take the credit for it. Ffs they are masters at getting colonies and former colonies to do their dying for them; Ireland still churns out suckers for them.


  3. The War Nerd has bits and pieces about this scattered all about. I’m not sure this one is totally relevant but it’s interesting anyway:


  4. Not sure one can plausibly claim the Brits were humiliated in Nothern Ireland. They’re still there after all – althoiugh admittedly their “success” was down to infiltration of the Provos (and prior to that, the Stickies), and control of the Dublin media and political class through their intelligence agents, rather than superior military prowess,

    They certainly were utterly humiliated in Iraq and Afghanistan – no question about that – which is why the word “Basra” never passes a British journalist or politician’s lips. But as Ar An Sliabh notes, the Brits are the masters at self-glorification and heroic myth-making. Melvyn Bragg wrote a few years ago “We (ie., the British) are a writing people.” And they are. That’s why you hear so much about their defeat of the Spanish Armada, and so little about their own repeatedly defeated attempts to invade Spain – not to mention their likewise defeated attempts to defeat Spain in the Netherlands. Even Cromwell’s “victory” of the Irish is vastly exaggerated – he left without having decisively subdued the country.


  5. On BBC1 Monday night Panorama delve into Scappaticci and the Stakeknife debacle. Essential viewing for porcine Bolton debt collectors and top spies.


    • TurboFurbo

      “A third former republican paramilitary suggests that Ireland would be better off in an economic bloc with the UK rather than with the European Union.”

      Now there’s a piece of real guff – in extremis.

      Even a growing number of Unionists – and the vast majority of Nationalists – fully realize that being in the EU is a much better option for all of Ireland.
      Interestingly, none of these people in this article deny that a Re-United is inevitable – they merely point out that they themselves may not see it in their life-time.

      Need to try harder John Cronin.
      A Re-United Ireland in inevitable – and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.


      • john cronin

        “re 8nited Ireland”? Ireland never was united in the first place.


  6. john cronin

    Er, if the Provos were “undefeated”, how come Norn Iron is still part of the UK?


  7. the Phoenix

    Simple. Brits had it easier in Basra because of sectarian make up of city. Brits let Iranian funded Shia paramilitary groups run the place. They turned a blind eye to criminal goings on of these groups too. US soldiers were based in Baghdad and Anbar and dealt with Baathists and jihadists. Brits got slaughtered in Sangin.


    • The British were unequivocally defeated in Basra – no one seriously denies this. They “withdrew” from the city in 2009 humiliated and left the Shia militias to sort the mess out. Even the BBC admitted this at the time of the “withdrawal” – and cited Iraqi locals’ contempt for their lack of fighting spirit.

      Maybe it’s not so surprising. After all the modern British army’s idea of a military hero is Lee Clegg, the killer of a teenage girl in Belfast.

      John Keegan, who had an Irish background, was a notoriously sycophantic fan boy of British militarism – so nothing he said about the British army could be taken at face value. He also wrote for the Telegraph – well known to be a British intelligence outlet


  8. the Phoenix

    Psni same as ruc,5000 brits still in north,McGuinness calls republicans traitors and meets queen,more brit surveillance now than ever,decommisioning,Sinn Fein agree to partitionist referendum only when given nod by brit colonial overseer. Tell me again how the provos won.


  9. TurboFurbo

    A Re-United Ireland is inevitable – and there is absolutely nothing but nothing that the ” John Cronin’s” or “Phoenix’s” can do to prevent it.

    The UDR has been disgraced, discredited, defeated, disbanded and dumped in the dustbin of history.
    The RUC has been disgraced, discredited, defeated, disbanded and dumped in the dustbin of history.

    The Orange terror statelet has been totally and utterly destroyed.

    Unionisms best option is to agree to forced power-sharing with the very people who destroyed their Orange terror statelet.
    Such is the impotence of present-day Unionism that they cannot even get a flag up a pole on Belfast City Hall on their own terms.

    The Irish Nation encompasses all of the territory of Ireland – including its islands and seas – as enshrined in the Irish Constitution and acknowledged in International law by the GFA so that the Irish Nation and the territory of Ireland – including its islands and seas – are inextricably bonded.
    People born in Tyrone are as Irish as people born in Clare under the Irish Constitution and under International law.

    Tom Kind’s idle gloating in 1987 that Partition was irreversible – and permanent – went up in the smoke of The Baltic Exchange and Canary Wharf as the movers and shakers in the City directed their mandarins in Westminster to sell the Unionists down the river at the GFA without a veto – nor even so much as a provision for

    Game’s up – a Re-United Ireland is inevitable.


    • the Phoenix

      I agree with you. But a united Ireland will happen in spite of PSF not because of them.


  10. Oliver Cromwell

    This is bull. The IRA were crushed thanks to the supergrass programme and came looking for terms long before 1990. IRA no longer exists, Northern Ireland remains British. Guess who won. Game over provos.


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