One of the great modern myths of the Troubles, the insurgency and counterinsurgency conflict that raged in the British-ruled north of Ireland from 1966 to 2005, is the claim that the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army was eventually defeated through the combined efforts of Britain’s military, paramilitary and intelligence services, suing for peace in the early 1990s. In fact this story has only gained relative popularity and credence over the last ten years or so and was absent from most authoritative accounts and memoirs of the final “peace process” phase of the war itself, and for many years thereafter. Certainly the British Army made no real effort to challenge the talks’ policy adopted by the Conservative Party government of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s as it gradually accepted the existence of a military stalemate in the Six Counties and sought to reopen back-channel negotiations with the Republican Movement (following on from similar contacts in the early and mid-1980s). On the contrary, official documentation and media briefings from the period make it clear that war-weariness and despair were the primary emotions in the political and security circles of London when it came to addressing the Troubles in the late ’80s.
For those promoting the myth of a UK victory in “Northern Ireland” in the 1990s the factual history of the era has forced a turn to the murky intelligence war between the Irish Republican Army and the likes of the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch, the British Army’s Intelligence Corps (and various secret units within it, notably the Force Research Unit), the Security Service (the SS; better known as MI5) and other branches of Britain’s intelligence community. Simply put, it is a lot easier to craft dubious histories based upon dubious suppositions and allegations when they are placed in the context of a world of deceit, lies and obfuscations. Consequently is is through the work of figures associated with various right-wing think tanks and pro-union groupings in London, notably the Brexit-supporting Policy Exchange, that the legend has emerged in British popular culture, a culture still unable to come to terms with the reality of the Irish-British peace process let alone the conflict that proceeded it, that “wot won it” was a legion of “James Bond”-style spies and agents directed by the genius “Ms” of Britain.
Thankfully the highly politicised need by some UK-based authors to turn what was in effect a British defeat-through-stalemate into a victory-through-informers has been challenged by a new wave of academics who have cast a very cold eye on the legend of Britain’s successes in the Troubles. Through the work of historians like Professor Paul Dixon of the University of London or Dr Niall Ó Dochartaigh of NUI Galway serious questions have been raised over the recent tabloidisation of the Troubles by some of their more ideologically-motivated colleagues or the amateur historians of the UK press. One of the highlight publications in this area is The Intelligence War against the IRA by Dr Thomas Leahy of Cardiff University. Expanding upon an earlier 257-page thesis (free to read in this link), Leahy challenges the myth of a British intelligence victory and finds it wanting. In fact a host of other factors, primarily in Ireland and primarily political, along with a confluence of changes in London and Washington, outweighed any notions of British super-spies changing the course of the conflict.
As I noted in a previous post on this subject, in 1969 Henry Kissinger summarised a long essay examining the US defeat in Vietnam with these words:
“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.”