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Operation Banner was flawed, but it enabled Northern Ireland to escape civil war

The former Chief of the Army says soldiers just "muddled through" in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. True, says Henry McDonald. But they also helped pave the way for the peace process in later years.

Published 28/11/2016

On guard: a soldier during Operation Banner guarding a north Belfast peace wall
On guard: a soldier during Operation Banner guarding a north Belfast peace wall
General Sir Richard Dannatt

For us, smashing one of your 11-tonne Saracen armoured personnel carriers into the front of our family home on August 9, 1971 represented more than just the British military "muddling through".

"Muddling through" - those were the words the former Chief of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, used to describe the way the armed forces approached the Northern Ireland conflict, especially in the early days of the Troubles.

Looking back as the six-year-old who was woken violently by the crash of the Saracen into our front door at Number 1 Eliza Street in the Markets on that pivotal morning, I would say it was more a case of "bulldozing, blunderbuss bumbling" than simply "muddling through".

It was my first experience of the iron fist of military policy, as they careered into our house and then went searching for suspects - any suspects - they could round up and intern without trial.

They searched our house looking for the legendary Official IRA leader, Joe McCann, who had engaged in a gun-battle with troops further down Eliza Street, at Inglis's Bakery. To no avail, of course; he had eluded them.

Scanning some of the photographs taken in my area during internment, it is easy to see how heavy-handed, harsh and one-directional the Army's response was to the escalating violence across Northern Ireland.

In his new memoir, Sir Richard, at least, admits that Operation Banner - the name the military gave to its presence in Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards - was, in fact, a "campaign without a campaign plan".

He also reminds us that, with 300,000 soldiers taking part in Operation Banner from 1969 until early into this century, Northern Ireland was the longest conflict the military had taken part in its history.

The general, who was head of the Army at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, does appear to accept, albeit in an elliptical way, the harm caused by draconian military reactions to armed insurgency and the way it fuelled and prolonged a conflict which should never have broken out in the first place.

From the assault on the lower Falls in 1970 (where the Army fought, in the main, the Official IRA) to internment, the massacre at Ballymurphy (there is no other way to describe what happened on the Upper Springfield Road that day) to Bloody Sunday, the military's response only deepened support, ultimately, for the Provisionals - leading to decades of futile violence and further division.

The mis-planning, the over-reactive decision-making, the sledgehammer approach to an incipient civil war, was a disgrace. As was the immoral use of informants within not only loyalist paramilitary organisations, but also the republican movement, to carry out assassinations of political opponents and those who needed to be disposed of that were a "threat to the state".

From Pat Finucane to Stakeknife, the military dabbled in an underground, dirty war, where, often, innocent people were sacrificed to preserve the reputation of agents and informers working for military intelligence.

Yet, if you take the long view of history, Sir Richard's claim in his book - that counter-insurgency state agencies around the world can learn plenty of lessons from Operation Banner in terms of ending armed conflict - is true.

He is surely right, with the benefit of hindsight, in his memoir that even by the mid-1970s "essentially, (the IRA) was failing, unable to force a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland". Even though, as he notes in the book, that from 1975 onwards, there was a consistent majority in Britain in favour of withdrawing the troops from Ulster.

In Boots On The Ground, the general - to his credit - accepts that the military alone could not bring the Troubles to an end and that the primacy of democratic politics would ultimately win through.

With the peace process in mind, you assume, he writes: "Insurgents could be defeated militarily in the short-term, but insurgency could only be defeated by tackling its root causes.

"The military task is to create the appropriate security conditions for civilian agencies to tackle the political, social and economic causes that fuel the radical discontent. As a result, somewhat paradoxically, military 'victory' is not the ultimate objective."

Given what has happened in Northern Ireland since the peace process, particularly with Sinn Fein co-running a Stormont-based regional administration alongside the DUP, his analysis is correct.

Yes, there were controversial and lethal incidents involving the Army, which unnecessarily prolonged the agony; however, the ability to stabilise Northern Ireland and prevent it from tipping into a full-blown civil war (of the like that was going on in Lebanon at the same time) was a crucial foundation on which the peace process was later built.

Every one of the actors in the tragedy played out in this society between 1969 and 1997 can be found guilty of the crime of arriving to reason far too late ... certainly too late for the thousands of victims.

Sinn Fein has arrived at a position exactly replicating the SDLP's in the power-sharing Executive in 1974. The unionists have arrived at the same position Brian Faulkner advised them to take in that same year.

The two governments have arrived at a position where Anglo-Irish relations are the most cordial and strong in history, which I believe will survive even the Brexit break-up.

The Army, too, as Sir Richard also admits, eventually arrived at a position where it realised there was no outright military solution to bringing stability and political co-operation in a society where that was once thought to be impossible.

Just like republicans, loyalists, unionists and the London-Dublin axis, Britain made many monumental mistakes on the way.

Perhaps the next time, if ever, that they take part in another military conflict around the planet, they will take some of the lessons learnt from the streets and fields of Northern Ireland and apply them in other far more troubled parts of the globe.

You might hope, too, that other armed forces - most notably the Americans - might be studying Operation Banner's history to avoid the same mistakes. These lessons were clearly not studied and applied by George W Bush's administration in the aftermath of invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

And with Donald Trump soon to be the overall head of American armed forces, you would have to doubt that they will still be learning from Britain's past politico-military errors on an island off the northwest of Europe.

Belfast Telegraph

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