Ireland: Colonial troops unlikely to be missed

August 31, 2007

Operation Banner, a 38-year British military operation in the north of Ireland, formally came to a close on July 31. The operation began in 1969, when British troops were deployed in the six counties that make up the sectarian state of Northern Ireland to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which was unable to maintain "public order" in the face of the explosion of the civil rights movement. The RUC had also been thoroughly discredited among the Catholic and nationalist communities for its role in facilitating sectarian pogroms against them.

Operation Banner involved more than a quarter of a million British military personnel being deployed to the north over the decades, with the number of active soldiers on the streets peaking at 30,000 in the early 1970s. With the end of the operation, up to 5000 British troops will remain in the six counties providing "residual" support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI, formerly the RUC) and will be available to be redeployed to other countries the British government is occupying, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The British government claimed that its forces were being deployed to "keep the peace" between two warring communities. But in reality troops were sent in to prop up the crumbling sectarian state and maintain its union with Britain, something that quickly became clear to the nationalist community. The troops were invited by the Unionist government and placed under its control.

On August 12, up to 10,000 people took part in a "march for truth" in Belfast, organised by Sinn Fein, to speak out against British state violence in northern Ireland and collusion with loyalist paramilitary death squads. The British Army and RUC killed 363 people during Operation Banner, and loyalist paramilitaries killed more than 1000, often acting with the sanction or aid of British military intelligence and RUC's Special Branch. Since the 1969 deployment, 763 British military personnel have been killed, the vast majority by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In an internal study of Operation Banner carried out by senior British Army officers and publicly released in July under the Freedom of Information Act, General Mike Jackson described the IRA as "professional, dedicated, highly skilled and resilient". The report assessed that the British forces could not defeat the IRA militarily and that a political solution was necessary. Another dazzling insight was that the military killing civilians tends to generate higher levels of support for the insurgents.

The Sinn Fein weekly An Phoblacht remarked in its July 12 edition, "The hundreds of references to the IRA as compared to the document's almost total disregard of loyalist violence exposes not only the colonial mindset of the British Army who identified only one enemy, the IRA, but also the ambiguity with which pro-British violence is regarded".

A police state

In their war with the republican movement, the British armed forces and the RUC turned the north into a police state, complete with military installations, surveillance towers and border checkpoints. Heavily armed soldiers and police officers maintained a permanent and threatening public presence, especially in nationalist areas of Derry and Belfast. The nationalist population faced constant harassment on the streets and in their homes in the form of stop-and-search powers, house raids and vehicle searches.

The operation went through various phases: from the naked military repression of the civil rights and republican movement and martial-law tactics of the early '70s; through to the attempt to isolate and criminalise the republican struggle and strangle it in the courts and jails; to the covert Special Air Service (SAS) and RUC shoot-to-kill ambushes of IRA volunteers.

In August 1971, internment without trial was introduced by the British armed forces. Twenty-six people were killed and more than 300 arrested in the initial operation. More than 2000 nationalists (including many non-combatants) were interned without trial in prison camps within six months. Many were held for years until indefinite internment was dropped in 1975.

On January 30, 1972, British paratroopers opened fire on a peaceful civil rights demonstration in Derry, killing 13 unarmed civilians; a 14th later died from his wounds. Operation Motorman (July-December 1972) was the British attempt to smash their way into the no-go republican areas in Derry and Belfast where the IRA could operate openly.

The British military's internal report assessing the campaign in the north calls these vicious colonial operations "poor" tactical decisions, fuelling mass support for the IRA's campaign of armed resistance to the occupation and flooding the organisation with new, young volunteers.

Criminalising the struggle

Throughout the occupation, the British military forces were closely integrated with the other key institutions in the Unionist Northern Ireland state, especially the RUC and the criminal justice system, but also with the loyalist paramilitary groups, the media and the government bureaucracy. All of these institutions shared a common interest in smashing the nationalist aspirations of the artificially created Catholic minority and preserving the status quo of sectarian privilege for the Protestant community within the framework of the British state.

In an effort to transform the damaging image of the British forces as an occupying colonial force, and to isolate the IRA from the nationalist community, a conscious attempt began in the mid-1970s to "Ulsterise" and "normalise" the war by criminalising the republican struggle, revitalising the RUC, and removing the "special category status" of prisoners of war.

The Diplock Commission of 1972, chaired by British Law Lord Kenneth Diplock, examined the question of how to deal with political dissent through "normal" legal process. It led to the formation of single-judge, jury-less courts for political defendants, who were commonly convicted on the basis of confessions extracted under torture. There were mandatory jail terms imposed for activities associated with the war, such as the possession of weapons.

The British military and intelligence services built up the professional and technological capacity of the RUC to resume the leadership of the counterinsurgency war in an effort to restore "police primacy" and give a facade of local and international legitimacy.

State terrorism

The 1981 hunger strike of republican prisoners, during which 10 men starved to death in a protest for the right to be treated as political prisoners, dramatically changed the political landscape by demonstrating and mobilising republicans' huge level of popular support in the north, in the rest of Ireland and internationally.

During the protests and unrest in the nationalist areas in response to the hunger strike, the RUC, unleashed and supported by the British Army, fired more than 30,000 plastic bullets, killing eight people, including three children. More than 80,000 plastic bullets have been fired since 1980.

During this period, British military forces were also carrying out covert operations, including carefully planned ambushes of active IRA units by the SAS, which had instructions from the British government to shoot to kill. From 1976-78, the SAS killed 10 people in such a manner, including three civilians. Then in the space of three weeks in 1982, the RUC killed six people in similar covert operations. The SAS carried out a well-planned ambush on an IRA unit in May 1987, shooting eight volunteers dead in Loughgall, and a further three IRA volunteers in Gibraltar in 1988. Altogether 72 people were killed in such covert operations. Subsequent inquiries into the incidents have proven the complicity of the highest levels of the British government.

The RUC and British military intelligence closely colluded with loyalist death squads in their attempts to assassinate republicans and carry out sectarian attacks on Catholics. These death squads have killed more than 1000 people since 1969. The collusion was often at the level of managing the gangs or individuals and selecting their targets.

The April 2003 report of the Stevens Inquiry into the murder of civil rights lawyer Pat Finucane, killed by an Ulster Defence Association death squad in 1989, established that there was collusion between British military intelligence, the RUC and Finucane's killers: "This ranges from the wilful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, through to the extreme of agents being involved in murder." In early 1990, the RUC paid a visit to the homes of Sinn Fein activists, telling them their files had been passed to the loyalists; between January 1990 and July 1993, 13 Sinn Fein activists were assassinated by the death squads.

Dismantling the police state

The withdrawal of active troops from the north is naturally welcomed by republicans and the nationalist community that bore the brunt of the occupation. The IRA could not defeat the British armed forces militarily, although the British forces failed to achieve their objectives of defeating the IRA militarily and crushing the republican aspirations of the nationalist community.

But the end of Operation Banner is only one step in the struggle to dismantle the Northern Ireland police state. Operation Helvetic began on August 1. It makes the remaining "peace-time" troops available to back up the PSNI, and gives them the power to stop and question anyone about their identity and movements. Other powers the army has include the right to make arrests and to enter premises without warrants.

Diplock jury-less courts may still try defendants if they are, or ever have been, or are an associate (friend, relative) of someone who ever has been, a member of a proscribed organisation. The reforms in the composition and accountability of the PSNI go some initial way towards depoliticising the force. However, MI5 has now fully taken over matters of "national security" in the north of Ireland and is unaccountable to anyone but the British government.

While the struggle for the total dismantling of this state based on sectarianism remains the massive long-term challenge, an urgent goal is for the full withdrawal of all British forces from Ireland — including M15 — and for the British state to be forced to take responsibility for the countless atrocities it committed during Operation Banner.

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