Belfast Telegraph

Army just muddled through Northern Ireland Troubles without a plan, says general

General in stark admission over MoD's lack of strategy during Operation Banner in NI

By Noel McAdam

The former chief of the Army has claimed the military experience in Northern Ireland provides a template for conflicts in years to come.

But General Sir Richard Dannatt is highly critical of a lack of planning by Army chiefs during Operation Banner - the codename for the British military campaign in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007.

In a new book he writes: "Ministers like the political uplift that goes with a short, sharp successful military operation, which ideally rights a simple wrong.

"The 1991 Gulf War was perhaps a politicians' ideal template for a 21st century conflict: the Troubles were not.

"They are, however, far more typical of what soldiers are likely to confront in the future."

In Boots On The Ground, Sir Richard also argues that the Provisional IRA had been "contained, if not defeated" by the mid-1970s.

The senior officer, who served for four decades in the forces, concludes: "Essentially, (the IRA) was failing, unable to force a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland."

But from the same period, 1975 onwards, he also records regular surveys of public opinion which showed almost two-thirds of people in Britain were in favour of the withdrawal of troops from the province.

The book, which deals with the history of the Army since the Second World War, includes an attack on what Sir Richard calls the "recurrent myth" that the Ministry of Defence regarded Northern Ireland as a "mere training ground" compared to military tours of Germany, for example.

"The reality was that soldiers were there because they had a job to do," he states.

Sir Richard reiterates that Operation Banner was now regarded by military chiefs as a "campaign without a campaign plan".

This backs up a review by the Army in 2006 that concluded there was little evidence of a strategic vision and no long-term plan.

"Muddling through, as more than one junior officer was exhorted to do, was no substitute for a plan," he argues.

With hindsight, the ex-commander suggests the initial three-month period when the Army arrived in 1969 was not properly utilised.

For three years afterwards the Army had "attempted to hold the line between the two communities" and in so doing had been drawn into the conflict itself.

It was perceived as "part of the problem - a precursor to the situation some three decades later in Iraq and Afghanistan".

Overall, around 300,000 soldiers took part in Operation Banner, the longest campaign in British military history.

A total of 763 British service personnel were killed.

That included 197 members of the UDR, 155 of them while off-duty.

Sir Richard 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."

Boots On The Ground: Britain And Her Army Since 1945, Sir Richard Dannatt, Profile Books, £25

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