AN ARMY OF TRIBES: BRITISH ARMY COHESION, DEVIANCY AND MURDER IN NORTHERN IRELAND

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

EDWARD BURKE
Liverpool University Press
£85
ISBN 9781786940971

Reviewed by Colin Wallace

Colin Wallace was Senior Information Officer (Psychological Operations) at British Army headquarters in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1975.

One message remains clearly fixed in my mind from my earliest experiences of the British Army more than 50 years ago: ‘There are no good or bad regiments, only good or bad officers’. This excellent book by Edward Blake brings home the significance of that message as regards the conduct of British Army operations in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s. The book has a strong academic feel, yet it is highly readable. It has managed to achieve the difficult task of being provocative without being partisan. That is no small achievement when writing about the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.

I was on the staff of Army HQ in Northern Ireland in 1969 when the Army first deployed in August that year, and I continued to work there until February 1975. During that period I watched the Army deal with a wide range of incidents and situations, including internment, the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike, ‘Bloody Friday’ and ‘Bloody Sunday’. Despite everything that has happened to me in the intervening years, I still believe that the vast majority of soldiers attempted to do a professional job and that they contributed much to the relative peace the province now enjoys. That does not mean that mistakes were not made, or that every soldier or officer always acted honourably. Real life is not like that.

Fundamentally, the Army’s commitment to Northern Ireland was as a result of the civil authority’s inability to control, through its own resources, the violence that had erupted during that summer of 1969. On the face of it, the Army’s mission appeared to be clear and straightforward: to act in aid of the civil power to restore order. In reality, however, to carry out its mission successfully the Army had to accomplish two key tasks. The first was short-term and involved the separation of the warring factions. The second was to help create the conditions that would allow a return to peaceful coexistence between those warring factions.

The British government established a framework around which all military operations in the province would be built. It was based on three fundamental principles: the minimum use of force; the primacy of the law; and the necessity of taking an even-handed approach to any disturbance. Those principles were supposed to be inviolable and applicable to everyone, irrespective of rank or unit.

To all intents and purposes, the Army initially replaced the police as the symbol of authority. Because of the Northern Ireland government’s perceived intransigence in dealing with the causes of the problems, the threat changed and the Army itself became the target for centuries of pent-up grievances. As time passed, the Army also realised that the techniques previously used successfully in the so-called ‘colonial wars’ were no longer appropriate. To make matters worse, the ongoing pressures of military–civil relations at a senior level had a knock-on effect operationally, as soldiers became more and more frustrated by the apparently conflicting political constraints imposed upon them. Even senior officers were not immune to the changes in political direction.

In 1975 the press reported that the then general officer commanding the Army in the province told a conference of the St John Ambulance Brigade in Nottingham that ‘the IRA could have been beaten in a matter of months, but for the political interference from Whitehall’. I am in no doubt that he was fully aware of the likelihood that his comments would be published in the press.

The election the previous year of a Labour government led by Harold Wilson created particular problems for the Army. First of all, there was the impact of the UWC strike, which brought about the downfall of the power-sharing initiative. Then there were numerous rumours about the government’s future policies for Northern Ireland. Those rumours included such diverse topics as total withdrawal and the unconditional release of IRA members held in detention.

Edward Blake rightly points out that the Army is a ‘tribal system’. When it works well, the tribal system has many advantages. For example, it helps to develop a sense of belonging and trust that bonds soldiers together, especially in times of adversity. During basic training soldiers are indoctrinated into a team mentality based on tradition, symbols and culture, all of which help to forge a sense of comradeship and loyalty that is akin to being part of a large family. When the tribal system goes wrong, however, it can be highly divisive and create a climate of covering up mistakes and wrongdoing.

I took part in the Saville Inquiry into the events known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and I was appalled that some senior military witnesses knowingly gave false evidence. What was worse was that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) clearly knew that some of the evidence was false but took no steps to correct the matter. Moreover, because the same false evidence was given by several witnesses, it would appear that the perjury was co-ordinated. While such tactics may have yielded some limited short-term gains, in the long term they were very damaging to the image of all those who served professionally in Northern Ireland.

Edward Blake’s book is both engaging and, at times, very disturbing, but it provides a well-balanced study of the British Army in what was probably its most controversial role ever. It also makes an important contribution to our understanding of the sociological impact of military operations in aid of the civil power in a democratic society. I am sure that it will be received with mixed feelings in Whitehall, but it has many important messages which the MoD and parliament should pay heed to for the future. Perhaps it should become mandatory reading for every officer cadet at Sandhurst and every officer attending staff college?

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