Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Operation Banner: Fifty years on

The 14th August marked the 50th anniversary of the deployment of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland at the request of James Chichester-Clark, the Northern Irish Prime Minister. There were two immediate reasons for this – the exhaustion of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the province’s police force, by rioting in Londonderry, and sectarian clashes in Belfast between Protestants and Catholics. The latter saw civilians being forced from their homes – arguably the first time such violence had occurred in western Europe since the Second World War, and a problem that would continue. What had initially been described as an intervention for a few weeks was to last until 31st July 2007, with troop numbers only significantly reduced following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. 1441 British soldiers were to die in Ulster, a number which vastly dwarves those killed in either conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fifty years after it began, what political lessons can be drawn from Operation Banner? 

The power structure which developed in Northern Ireland following partition should serve as a reminder that federal political structures and devolved administrations can have weaknesses – Unionists were allowed to carry out discrimination against the Catholic minority that would not have been tolerated on the mainland. Approaches to education, employment and housing came to be conducted through the prism of maintaining existing majoritarian hierarchies. Following the flop of the IRA’s border campaign of 1956-1962, Irish Republicanism was a comparatively weak force in this period. The civil rights movement which emerged to challenge the established order tended to combine students, leftists and nationalists. They were met with a mixture of political indifference and brutality

Whilst community divisions centred around the divide between Loyalist (Protestant) and Nationalist (Catholic), ‘Big house Unionism’ – a patrician stripe of politics reflective of the English class system, and led by the Ulster Unionist Party, was the governing characteristic of life in Northern Ireland until at least 1972. A family anecdote illustrates its system of patronage. Unemployed on leaving the Royal Marines in the 1960s, Tom Wilcox – my uncle – began badgering senior politicians in letters. A reply soon arrived: ‘Dear Wilcox, a job has been found for you as a driver at Stormont Castle’. Uncle Tom had his job, even though he could not drive, and had mysteriously lost his first name. 

As Westminster became more invested in the province, and the military engagement central to events, Big house Unionism was crushed by the weight of developments. Externally it was smothered by the imposition of direct rule in 1972, as London sought to take control of a conflict that by the early 1970s was costing hundreds of lives per year, in a territory with a population size similar to that of Yorkshire. Internally, the twin forces of Paisleyism and the emergence of working-class Loyalist paramilitaries fatally undermined it.

In 1969 the British military was reacting to events, rather than intervening as part of a developed strategy. That tendency continued for some time, as a commitment initially described as short-term grew into years. Initial support from the Catholic community in Belfast soon faded, as the army became increasingly relied upon to disperse riots, and to man interface areas between Loyalist and Republican communities. Here the Provisional IRA sought to target soldiers as the first-line representatives of the British state. The political space in which Operation Banner could operate also narrowed. The Ulster Workers Council general strike in May 1974 saw loyalists in the key industries of energy and transport protest against both the security situation in the province and any direct involvement of the Irish Republic in their community’s governance.

Perhaps the primary lesson from Operation Banner is that the military cannot in the short-term, make good societal and political failings. Only politicians can do that.

With the prospect of any political settlement negligible, a low intensity conflict continued. A study of the numbers killed annually demonstrates a peak of 480 in the terrible year of 1972, and just under 300 in each of the next four years. However, Northern Ireland never descended into civil war. After 1976, death tolls stabilised, and did not exceed 120 in a year. Much of this marks the extent to which people in both communities wished to live normal lives. Also, that in time, the authorities got better at what they did. It is odd, given the military’s current reliance on special forces, to consider how long the SAS were kept from the fray in Northern Ireland; indeed, in the 1970s they were more likely to be in Oman than Omagh. The 1987 attack by the SAS on the IRA’s East Tyrone brigade at Loughall killed eight, and was the Republican movement’s biggest loss of the conflict. The increased ability of Britain’s intelligence agencies to penetrate the IRA, combined with attacks by loyalist paramilitaries (aided in part by British intelligence) further weakened physical force republicanism. This is best demonstrated by the example of the British Army asset known as ‘Stakeknife’. It is suggested the IRA’s investigations unit, known as the ‘Nutting Squad’, was manipulated into executing members who were not informants, and leaving in place people who were. 

Peace processes tend to work when there is either a mutually hurting stalemate, or it is clearly in the interests of one side or the other to sue for peace. Weakened as the IRA was, big bomb attacks on English cities in the 1990s brought the British insurance industry to crisis point. When considered in these terms, the Northern Ireland peace process, and the eventual Good Friday agreement should not be seen as a surprise. Operation Banner could begin to wind down. 

Wider lessons of Operation Banner

Since the start of Operation Banner, Northern Ireland is the metaphor Britons grasp at when things go wrong. Lord Scarman, brought in to chair a government inquiry into Northern Ireland’s 1969 disturbances, reprised his role following the Brixton Riots of 1981. When Britons discuss towns in England with low levels of integration and/or poor community relations – such as Dewsbury, Luton, Oldham, or Rochdale – comparisons with Northern Ireland are never far from the surface. Some proposed remedies, such as Home Office schemes for integrated volunteering programmes to aid community cohesion, were pioneered in Northern Ireland. The dangers of separate schools, and of towns with distinct communities with different worldviews, should inform debates about integration and community relations. 

Perhaps the primary lesson from Operation Banner is that the military cannot in the short-term, make good societal and political failings. Only politicians, and the communities from which they are drawn, can do that. What the military, and intelligence agencies can do, is address – over time – the challenges posed by armed insurgents. It is not, however, always going to be pretty, and it is not as decisive as political agreement with community support.

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