British troops were sent into Northern Ireland for the first time in 1969 as part of an emergency measure codenamed Operation Banner. They were only supposed to stay for a few weeks to deal with some rioting that had got out of hand…instead, they stayed for nearly 38 years.
It turned out to be the British Army’s longest ever military campaign. More than 300,000 soldiers served in Northern Ireland during those 38 years. In 1972, the worst year of violence, there were 27,000 soldiers on duty – more than were used in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. During those turbulent four decades known as the Troubles, British troops were largely supported by Loyalists but went from heroes to hate figures in the eyes of thousands in the Nationalist community. They were constantly the men in the middle between warring paramilitaries and rival demonstrators. Nearly 700 of them lost their lives to bullets and bombs, and in turn, they killed more than 300 people, some of their victims were paramilitaries but many were innocent civilians.
The Catholic Nationalist community came to see them as oppressors who raided their homes, murdered their sons and colluded with Loyalists who attacked and terrorised them… but all that came later. In summer of ’69, they were welcomed by Catholics as saviours come to protect them from Loyalists.
The flashpoint that triggered the arrival of the troops was the Battle of the Bogside, a landmark event in the history of the Troubles.
It started on 12 August, 1969 when Nationalist youths in Derry confronted a march by the Apprentice Boys of Derry. Stones were thrown by both sides and the situation quickly escalated into a full scale riot that lasted for two days. The rioting spread to west Belfast where it proved even more tragic. Eight people were killed, hundreds more injured and 1,800 homes were burnt out…1,500 belonged to Catholics.
The Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark looked on with a growing desperation. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were unable to quell the rioting…indeed, they were being accused of colluding with Loyalists and turning a blind eye to attacks on Catholics.
In Dublin, the Irish Taoiseach Jack Lynch took the unprecedented step of broadcasting a speech blaming the Stormont government and the RUC for effectively creating the problem by their policies in the past. He said the RUC no longer had to confidence of the Nationalist community and warned that British troops would not be acceptable either. He urged Britain to send in a United Nations peacekeeping force.
In London, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Home Secretary James Callaghan reluctantly accepted that they would have to get more directly involved as it was clear the Stormont government was getting out of its depth. Callaghan arranged to have British troops on standby but he didn’t want to order the troops in himself.
British troops were welcomed by Catholics but it did not last
For political reasons, he preferred that if troops were to be sent in, it should be at the request of the Northern Ireland government. That request wasn’t long in coming. Chichester Clark contacted British officials on 13 August to ask for military help. Callaghan was aboard an RAF plane when the message came through and he agreed immediately.
The moment had already been planned for and British troops were on the streets of Derry within hours. They managed to restore calm and were welcomed by the Catholic families who rewarded them with tea and toast.
The troops arrived in Belfast the following day and met with the same response.
It was a brief honeymoon period, however, and the troops soon took their place alongside the RUC as hate figures seen to be propping up Unionist dominance and British oppression.
There were several reasons for this. The first and most obvious was that the troops were there to maintain order as defined by the Stormont government and the British government. That definition did not always coincide with how the Nationalists saw things, especially in relation to having their homes raided, and their lives disrupted. By implementing government policies, the troops inevitably drew criticism from people who opposed those policies.
But there was much more to it than that. The way the troops behaved while carrying out their duties also provoked anger and widespread criticism.
Catholics complained that not only were they subjected to more raids, roadblocks, curfews etc. than their Protestant neighbours, but the troops were unnecessarily heavy handed and brutal while carrying out their duties.
These were constant complaints from Catholics but there were also several landmark events that permanently damaged their confidence and trust in the army.
Falls Road Curfew and Bloody Sunday destroyed trust in the troops
One of the first of these was Falls Road Curfew in July 1970. Army commanders decided to impose a 34-hour curfew on the Lower Falls Road area. The move was later deemed to be illegal as they had acted beyond their powers. During the curfew, they confined 20,000 people, including children, to their homes while 5,000 house searches were carried out.
During this process, three men were shot dead and a fourth was crushed by an armoured car. None turned out to have any connection with terrorist organisations. A further 60 people were wounded by army gunfire. Catholics complained that during the searches, their homes were ransacked, many of their possessions were deliberately destroyed and in some cases looted by the troops.
The Catholic community was outraged and the army never regained their trust.
A year later on 9 August, the Stormont government introduced internment and the troops were sent to bring in more than 350 people suspected of being involved in the IRA. No Loyalists were interned. The move led to four days of rioting, in which the troops shot dead 17 civilians, 11 of them in the Ballymurphy massacre.
On January 28 1972, came the most infamous episode throughout the Troubles, Bloody Sunday, in which paratroopers opened fire on marchers protesting against internment. A total of 26 people, including bystanders, were shot. Thirteen died at the scene and a 14th died later. Various statements were put out saying that the protesters had shot first but an inquiry later concluded that they were unarmed and that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”.
There were numerous other similar episodes such as the Springhill Massacre on 9 July 1972 in which troops killed five civilians, including three children. On 31 July 1972, the army launched Operation Motorman. This involved breaking down the barricades that Catholics had set up around their neighbourhoods to keep out the army and Loyalist attackers. Troops killed four people in the operation in Derry, including a 15-year-old boy and an unarmed IRA man.
These and other incidents led to accusations that the army was operating a “shoot to kill” policy whereby they preferred to open fire on suspects rather than arrest them and put them forward for trial.
The army also had what it called a Military Reaction Force, which was active between 1971 and 1973. It was set up to kill IRA members in covert drive-by shootings. Many of its victims were unarmed and many had nothing to do with the IRA. The killings were blamed on Loyalist terrorists at the time and the truth did not emerge until many years later, following investigations by journalists and others.
One of the Force’s members later told journalists from Britain’s BBC Television: “We were not there to act like an army unit, we were there to act like a terror group.”
The third factor that destroyed the trust of the Catholic population was the way the army colluded with Loyalist terrorist groups. There were allegations that troops provided loyalist paramilitaries with weapons and intelligence enabling them to target Nationalists. There were further allegations that the army took no action against Loyalist paramilitaries and obstructed police investigations against them.
In 2012, an independent inquiry concluded that British agents had colluded with Loyalists over the murder of the Belfast solicitor, Pat Finucane, who had represented members of the IRA and the families of shoot-to-kill victims. British Prime Minister David Cameron later issued an apology in a speech at the House of Commons.
Official figures show that British troops killed 305 people during Operation Banner throughout the duration of the Troubles. Of these, 156 were civilians, 127 were Republican paramilitaries and 13 were Loyalist paramilitaries.
The violence wasn’t all one way, of course. A total of 692 British soldiers were killed in the conflict, mainly by Republican paramilitaries, and a further 689 died from natural causes, including suicide.
The first army casualty was Gunner Robert Curtis who was shot by the IRA on 9 February 1971. Hundreds more were killed in shootings and bombings over the following three decades.
Operation Banner started to be scaled down in 1994 after the IRA declared a ceasefire as part of the Peace Process. This gradual withdrawal of troops continued intermittently until the operation officially ended on 31 July 2007.
The success or failure of the British Army in Northern Ireland cannot be measured in terms of whether they defeated the Republican paramilitaries. The army had long since recognised that it could not defeat the IRA and the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, acknowledged that publicly in a speech in 1989.
By the same token, the IRA had similarly recognised that it could not defeat the British army. In the end, the two sides reached a stalemate. The only possible way out was to reach a political solution. Negotiations between all the interested parties – Republicans and Loyalists, and the British and Irish governments – proceeded slowly throughout the 1990s but eventually were successful with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, paving the way for a new power sharing government for Northern Ireland.