Aug 1, 2007

Operation Banner - British MoD Reminisce Northern Ireland COIN

Here's a recently unearthed document outlining the British military view of its own role, function, successes and failures from 1969 to 2006 in Northern Ireland. The document, Operation Banner - An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland ( pdf), offers insight into the thinking of senior military officers and civil servants at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. The level of detail re operational matters proves that this wasn't intended to reach the hoi polloi.

In 2006, when the document was written, the CGS was General Mike Jackson who drew up the notorious 'shot list' in the hours after Bloody Sunday. The British Government has long sought to portray its role in Northern Ireland as that of the neutral broker, the referee between two warring factions. This document, which was not intended to be made public, makes no such pretense. According to the MoD there was only one war and one enemy - the IRA. Loyalist paramilitaries on the other hand were 'respectable'.


The military operations which started in Northern Ireland in 1969 will, without a doubt, be seen as one of the most important campaigns ever fought by the British Army and its fellow Services. That campaign is the longest to date; one of the very few waged on British soil; and one of the very few ever brought to a successful conclusion by the armed forces of a developed nation against an irregular force. This publication is a reflection on that campaign that seeks to capture its essence; it does not claim to be the definitive analysis.

The immediate tactical lessons of Operation BANNER have already been exported elsewhere, with considerable success. Operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq have already demonstrated both the particular techniques and the levels of expertise learnt through hard experience, both on the streets and in the fields of Northern Ireland. This publication does not seek to capture those lessons. Instead, it considers the high-level general issues that might be applicable to any future counter insurgency or counter terrorist campaign which the British armed forces might have to undertake.


There was no insurgency in August 1969. The IRA was not a credible force and took no significant part in the events of that month. For several reasons the IRA was allowed to develop into an effective insurgent organisation over the next two years. This suggests that the early stages of an apparent breakdown in social order – however it is described - are absolutely critical to the subsequent nature of a campaign. All subsequent decisions and actions, by all parties, are conditioned by these early events. Furthermore violence in the early stages creates bitterness, hatred and extreme views which can last for generations. Looking at the events of the Troubles in retrospect, it is apparent that many of them could have been avoided or reduced in impact if effective measures had been taken early on; and that similar patterns can be seen in many situations elsewhere.

Thus there is an important requirement to identify situations which are likely to lead to social unrest, insurgency or civil war. In Northern Ireland, this should not have been difficult. Junior officers present in Northern Ireland in 1969 were well aware of the discrimination and deprivation, and asked themselves at the time why the Government did not do anything about it.

However, the critical issue is the necessity of engaging all relevant agencies in early, substantive, visible action for reform in order to prevent insurgency or civil war breaking out or potential insurgents exploiting the situation. This is likely to be difficult. Lack of knowledge of the situation, lack of perception, vested interests and political impasse will all militate against the chance of such preventive action being taken.

The initial period after the arrival of a military force in a peace support or peace enforcement operation has been described as the ‘honeymoon period’. That suggests that there is a period (variously given as 100 days or three months) in which to put things right. The term ‘honeymoon period’ is a misnomer. It is not a honeymoon. It is the most important phase of the campaign.

The underlying causes of an insurgency will tend to be social or political, economic, religious or a mixture of these. Insurgent bodies feed off disaffection (and vice versa) from whatever cause. In the case of Northern Ireland the IRA fed initially off discrimination and deprivation, and then exploited the perception that the Army and RUC were partisan and anti-catholic. The truth was not necessarily important: dissatisfaction is a sentiment, and feeds off perceptions.

Security forces do not ‘win’ insurgency campaigns militarily; at best they can contain or suppress the level of violence and achieve a successful end-state. They can thus
reduce a situation to an ‘acceptable level of violence’ – a level at which normal social, political and economic activities can take place without intimidation. ‘Acceptable level of violence’ as a term should be used carefully since violence should have no place in a developed society. What is required is a level which the population can live with, and with which local police forces can cope. Security forces should bring the level of violence down to the point at which dissidents believe they will not win through a primarily violent strategy and at which a political process can proceed without significant intimidation. If possible, the situation should not be allowed to come to that stage.

However, unless the causes of unrest are addressed, insurgency or serious unrest will continue. In Northern Ireland this did happen, over a period of years. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive did clear the great majority of the Victorian slums. Money was invested into the economy to create jobs. It took time, and it could not have been done without a substantial reduction in the levels of violence of the early 1970s. But, simplistically, the long-term solution was not to deploy three battalions into the Divis Flats; but rather to bulldoze them and build decent, respectable homes with proper amenities.

Addressing the causes of the insurgency will not generally be within the remit of the armed forces. They can achieve a limited but critical security task, but that will not be the solution to the overall problem. In addition, they should avoid making the situation worse. It could be argued that the Army did make the situation worse by, in practice, alienating the catholic community in 1970 and 1971. In this regard, it should be acknowledged that while material improvements can be delivered, in some cases it may be much more difficult to change emotions, perceptions or deep-seated grievances and beliefs.


By 1980 almost all the military structures which eventually defeated PIRA were in place. It is revealing to examine why it then took another quarter of a century to end the campaign.

In retrospect some signs are visible. There was no single authority in overall charge of the direction of the campaign, but rather three agencies, often poorly-coordinated: Stormont followed by the NIO; the MOD; and the RUC. From a military perspective, for most of the campaign there was little coherence and synergy. There was little evidence of a strategic vision and no long-term plan.

Below the level of Westminster White Papers there was no clearly-articulated strategy, or view of the future and how to achieve it which involved all the relevant
agencies. As a result the ‘wheel was often reinvented’ and progress was unnecessarily slow. Action against terrorists was not linked closely to addressing the causes of the problem.Ministers and civil servants were sometimes reluctant to engage in the comprehensive, fully coordinated cross-government activity which the Army would recognise as a campaign plan. That is a good reason for the need to take very firm action to ensure that they are engaged in, and convinced of the need to abide by, the process. This will not be easy.


For several reasons Information Operations were probably the most disappointing aspect of the campaign. In the early stages soldiers and junior officers, given appropriate training, did a very good job of appearing on camera in the immediate aftermath of an incident. The Army certainly learned hard lessons regarding media handling in the early 1970s. However, with that exception, Information Operations were generally poorly conducted; they were ill-coordinated with other government bodies; they were reactive; and often missed significant opportunities.

Particular efforts are likely to be needed to overcome the inherent lack of synergy between Government Departments and agencies. In Northern Ireland this was never more the case than in the area of Information Operations.

The absence of a government information line was often exploited by the terrorist, sometimes with operational or strategic consequences. Constant criticism in the republican media, notably the An Phoblacht newspaper, was not seriously challenged by Government, NIO or Army Information Operations. Part of the reason for the ineffectiveness lay in the lack of a single unitary authority for the campaign, and the lack of a joint forum to agree Information Operations priorities, messages and means of dissemination. Differing viewpoints on the need for positive Information Operations in Stormont (and the NIO) the Police and HQ Northern Ireland militated against effective Information Operations.

There was very little actionable intelligence before the introduction of Internment. The RUC SB was almost completely ineffective and the traditional source of HUMINT – the B Specials - had been disbanded. The UDR was originally not allowed any role in intelligence activities. Without actionable intelligence of any appreciable quality or quantity, the security forces' main offensive option was to search occupied houses, usually conducted on the basis of low-grade tip-offs. ...

Considerable emphasis was initially placed on screening, 'P' ('Personality') checks and pub checks. Detaining individuals for a few hours to allow screening was useful, since some individuals were quite happy to pass information in privacy if they had been detained. However, it was considered highly invasive of personal liberty. P checks were equally intrusive, and pub checks were often highly and unnecessarily confrontational. As the campaign progressed these methods were largely replaced by less intrusive methods, training in suspect recognition, and chat-ups. It took a little time to realise that the best 'chatter-up' was not necessarily the most senior member of a patrol. [lol]

Many contributions to this analysis have described the information campaign in terms such as ‘woeful’, ‘pitiable’ and ‘grossly inadequate’. In simple terms, rarely would anybody in authority other than in the Army take a positive, proactive stance. The result was a regular series of information failures in which PIRA (and occasionally loyalist paramilitaries) held and exploited their advantage. As early as the mid-1970s over 80% of the violence was perpetrated by PIRA, but even that simple and categorical fact was never exploited. Since insurgency feeds off dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction is a sentiment which feeds off perceptions, shaping the perception of the population is critically important. The absence of a unified, proactive information strategy for most of the campaign was a major failing.

One distinguished commentator has suggested that, in peace support or counter insurgency operations, information is the currency, not firepower. The logic is simple: once an adversary has been identified to allow his removal (by arrest or attack) the security forces normally have more than sufficient physical resources with which to strike. The difficult part is the information required, particularly where the terrorist or insurgent hides himself in the midst of the population (and in a blizzard of irrelevant information).

The intelligence aspects of Operation BANNER were discussed earlier. Their importance is hard to understate. The insurgency could not have been broken, and the terrorist structure could not have been engaged and finally driven into politics without the intelligence organisations and processes that were developed.

It was often said that the British did not understand Ireland. In part this may have reflected ignorance and an unwillingness to try to understand. For the many commanders who did attempt to understand the roots of the Troubles any number of perceptive books were available. With hindsight what those books could not easily convey, nor the British easily understand, were the deep-seated beliefs, myths and feelings held by the local population. In some cases the perceived (and perhaps actual) grievances were centuries old.

Selectively taught history or partisan use of events provided rallying cries and strong motivators. Such cultural issues tend to be unspoken and even subconscious. They are inherently difficult to comprehend. In the absence of such deep understanding the British tended to underestimate the differences between the Irish and themselves. One commentator observed that Englishmen, especially, tend to view the Irishman as a variant of a Briton rather than as a foreigner.

Without effective cultural understanding the security forces in any theatre cannot conduct a truly effective information campaign and arguably, therefore, an effective counter insurgency campaign. Additionally many military activities may be flawed because the reaction of population cannot be properly predicted: there is a need both to gain intelligence and to understand local perceptions.7 This links to the idea that insurgency feeds off dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction is a sentiment based on perception. Perception is framed by culture.

A coherent, effective high-level information operations campaign will be a prerequisite for success: information operations are crucial in a world with an insatiable desire for information and news, and where the internet ‘blogger’ can broadcast as powerful images and messages as the White House or Downing Street. The Army learned hard lessons about good media relations in the 1970s, but this is an area that needs as much attention as the capabilities of potential opponents; and the high-level information operations effort was, during the campaign, as a rule, weak. Information operations should be conducted at several levels: they are not just a tactical military activity.

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