|Part of |
Dissident Irish Republican campaign
Two British Army soldiers at a checkpoint near Newry, Northern Ireland
|Royal Ulster Constabulary||Irish republican paramilitaries||Ulster loyalist paramilitaries|
|Commanders and leaders|
21,000 British soldiers|
Total: c. 40,500
|Casualties and losses|
PIRA 97 killed by British Army|
INLA 5 killed by British Army
IPLO 1 killed by British Army
UVF 7 killed by British Army |
UDA 7 killed by British Army
Operation Banner was the
According to the Ministry of Defence, 1,441 serving British military personnel died in Operation Banner; 722 of whom were killed in paramilitary attacks, and 719 of whom died as a result of other causes. It suffered its greatest loss of life in the Warrenpoint ambush of 1979.
Description of the operation
From 1998, after the Good Friday Agreement, Operation Banner was gradually scaled down: patrols were suspended and several military barracks closed or dismantled, even before the start of the decommissioning of IRA armaments. The process of demilitarisation started in 1994, after the first IRA ceasefire. From the second IRA ceasefire in 1997 until the first act of decommissioning of weapons in 2001, almost 50% of the army bases were vacated or demolished along with surveillance sites and holding centres, while more than 100 cross-border roads were reopened.
Eventually in August 2005, it was announced that in response to the Provisional IRA declaration that its campaign was over, and in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement provisions, Operation Banner would end by 1 August 2007.
While the withdrawal of troops was welcomed by nationalist political parties the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Féin, the unionist Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party opposed the decision, which they regarded as 'premature'. The main reasons behind their resistance were the continuing activity of republican dissident groups, the loss of security-related jobs for the Protestant community, and the perception of the British Army presence as an affirmation of the political union with Great Britain.
Adam Ingram, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, has stated that assuming the maintenance of an enabling environment, British Army support to the PSNI after 31 July 2007 was reduced to a residual level, known as Operation Helvetic, providing specialised ordnance disposal and support to the PSNI in circumstances of extreme public disorder as described in Patten recommendations 59 and 66, should this be needed, thus ending the British Army's emergency operation in Northern Ireland.
Role of the armed forces
The support to the police forces was primarily from the British Army, with the Royal Air Force providing helicopter support as required. A maritime component was supplied under the codename of Operation Grenada, by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines in direct support of the Army commitment. This was tasked with interdicting the supply of weapons and munitions to paramilitaries, acting as a visible deterrence by maintaining a conspicuous maritime presence on and around the coast of Northern Ireland and Lough Neagh.
The role of the armed forces in their support role to the police was defined by the Army in the following terms:
- "Routine support – Includes such tasks as providing protection to the police in carrying out normal policing duties in areas of terrorist threat; patrolling around military and police bases to deter terrorist attacks and supporting police-directed counter-terrorist operations"
- "Additional support – Assistance where the police have insufficient assets of their own; this includes the provision of observation posts along the border and increased support during times of civil disorder. The military can provide soldiers to protect and, if necessary, supplement police lines and cordons. The military can provide heavy plant to remove barricades and construct barriers, and additional armoured vehicles and helicopters to help in the movement of police and soldiers"
- "Specialist support – Includes bomb disposal, search and tracker dogs, and divers from the Royal Engineers"
Number of troops deployed
At the peak of the operation in the 1970s, the British Army was deploying around 21,000 soldiers. By 1980, the figure had dropped to 11,000, with a lower presence of 9,000 in 1985. The total climbed again to 10,500 after the intensification of the IRA use of
Vehicles used by the British military during Operation Banner, some of which were developed for the operation, include:
- Alvis Saracen
- Alvis Saladin
- Ferret armoured car
- Humber Pig
- Land Rovers, including the Snatch Land Rover
- Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopter
- Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma helicopter
- Chinook helicopter
- Westland Lynx helicopter
The British military was responsible for about 10% of all deaths in the conflict. According to one study, the British military killed 306 people during Operation Banner, 156 (~51%) of whom were unarmed civilians. Another study says the British military killed 301 people, 160 (~53%) of whom were unarmed civilians. Of the civilians killed, 61 were children. Only four soldiers were convicted of murder while on duty in Northern Ireland. All were released after serving two or three years of life sentences and allowed to rejoin the Army. Senior Army officers privately lobbied successive Attorneys General not to prosecute soldiers, and the Committee on the Administration of Justice says there is evidence soldiers were given some level of immunity from prosecution. Elements of the British Army also colluded with illegal loyalist paramilitaries responsible for numerous attacks on civilians (see below). Journalist Fintan O'Toole argues that "both militarily and ideologically, the Army was a player, not a referee".
Relationship with the Catholic community
Many Catholics initially welcomed the British Army's deployment, as Catholic neighbourhoods had been attacked by Protestant loyalists and the RUC. However, relations soured between the British Army and Catholics. The British Army's actions in support of the RUC and the unionist government "gradually earned it a reputation of bias" in favour of Protestants and unionists. In the British Army's campaign against the IRA, Catholic areas were frequently subjected to house raids, checkpoints, patrols and curfews that Protestant areas avoided. There were frequent claims of soldiers physically and verbally abusing Catholics during these searches. In some neighbourhoods, clashes between Catholic residents and British troops became a regular occurrence. In April 1970, Ian Freeland, the British Army's overall commander in Northern Ireland, announced that anyone throwing petrol bombs would be shot dead if they did not heed a warning from soldiers.
The Falls Curfew in July 1970 was a major blow to relations between the British Army and Catholics. A weapons search in the mainly Catholic
On 9 August 1971, internment (imprisonment without trial) was introduced in Northern Ireland. Soldiers launched dawn raids and interned almost 350 people suspected of IRA involvement. This sparked four days of violence in which 20 civilians were killed and thousands were forced to flee their homes. Of the 17 civilians killed by British soldiers, 11 of them were in the Ballymurphy Massacre. No loyalists were included in the sweep, and many of those arrested were Catholics with no provable paramilitary links. Many internees reported being beaten, verbally abused, threatened, denied sleep and starved. Some internees were taken to a secret interrogation centre for a program of "deep interrogation".
The five techniques, the interrogation techniques, were described by the European Court of Human Rights as "inhuman and degrading", and by the European Commission of Human Rights as "torture". The operation led to mass protests and a sharp increase in violence over the following months. Internment lasted until December 1975, with 1,981 people interned.
The incident that most damaged the relationship between the British Army and the Catholic community was Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972. During an anti-internment march in
On 9 July 1972, British troops in
In the early hours of 31 July 1972, the British Army launched Operation Motorman to re-take Northern Ireland's "no-go areas", mostly Catholic neighbourhoods that had been barricaded by the residents to keep out the security forces and loyalists. During the operation, the British Army shot four people in Derry, killing a 15-year-old Catholic civilian and an unarmed IRA member.
From 1971 to 1973, a secret British Army unit, the Military Reaction Force (MRF), carried out undercover operations in Belfast. It killed and wounded a number of unarmed Catholic civilians in drive-by shootings. The British Army initially claimed the civilians had been armed, but no evidence was found to support that. Former MRF members later admitted that the unit shot unarmed people without warning, both IRA members and civilians. One member said, "We were not there to act like an army unit, we were there to act like a terror group". At first, many of the drive-by shootings were blamed on Protestant loyalists. Republicans claim the MRF sought to draw the IRA into a sectarian conflict to divert it from its campaign against the state.
In May 1992, there were clashes between paratroopers and Catholic civilians in the town of Coalisland, triggered by a bomb attack on a British Army patrol in nearby Cappagh that severed the legs of a paratrooper. The soldiers ransacked two pubs, damaged civilian cars and opened fire on a crowd. Three civilians were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. As a result, the Parachute Regiment was redeployed outside urban areas and the brigadier at 3 Infantry Brigade, Tom Longland, was relieved of his command.
Collusion with loyalist paramilitaries
In their efforts to defeat the IRA, there were incidents of
The Army's locally-recruited Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was almost wholly Protestant. Despite the vetting process, loyalist militants managed to enlist; mainly to obtain weapons, training and intelligence. A 1973 British Government document (uncovered in 2004), "Subversion in the UDR", suggested that 5–15% of UDR soldiers then were members of loyalist paramilitaries. The report said the UDR was the main source of weapons for those groups, although by 1973 weapons losses had dropped significantly, partly due to stricter controls. By 1990, at least 197 UDR soldiers had been convicted of loyalist terrorist offences and other serious crimes including bombings, kidnappings and assaults. Nineteen were convicted of murder and 11 for manslaughter. This was only a small fraction of those who served in it, but the proportion was higher than in the regular British Army, the RUC and the civilian population.
Initially, the Army allowed soldiers to be members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
In 1977, the Army investigated 10th Battalion, Ulster Defence Regiment based at Girdwood Barracks, Belfast. The investigation found that 70 soldiers had links to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), that thirty soldiers had fraudulently diverted up to £47,000 to the UVF, and that UVF members socialized with soldiers in their mess. Following this, two soldiers were dismissed on security grounds. The investigation was halted after a senior officer claimed it was harming morale. Details of it were uncovered in 2011.
During the 1970s, the Glenanne gang—a secret alliance of loyalist militants, British soldiers and RUC officers—carried out a string of attacks against Catholics in an area of Northern Ireland known as the "murder triangle". It also carried out some attacks in the Republic. Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland claims the group killed about 120 people, almost all of whom were reportedly uninvolved Catholic civilians. The Cassel Report investigated 76 murders attributed to the group and found evidence that soldiers and policemen were involved in 74 of those. One member, RUC officer John Weir, claimed his superiors knew of the collusion but allowed it to continue. The Cassel Report also said some senior officers knew of the crimes but did nothing to prevent, investigate or punish. Attacks attributed to the group include the Dublin and Monaghan bombings (1974), the Miami Showband killings (1975) and the Reavey and O'Dowd killings (1976).
The Stevens Inquiries found that elements of the British Army had used loyalists as "proxies". Through their double-agents and informers, they helped loyalist groups to kill people, including civilians. It concluded that this had intensified and prolonged the conflict. The Army's Force Research Unit (FRU) was the main agency involved. Brian Nelson, the UDA's chief 'intelligence officer', was a FRU agent. Through Nelson, FRU helped loyalists target people for assassination. FRU commanders say they helped loyalists target only republican activists and prevented the killing of civilians. The Inquiries found evidence only two lives were saved and that Nelson/FRU was responsible for at least 30 murders and many other attacks – many of them on civilians. One victim was solicitor Pat Finucane. Nelson also supervised the shipping of weapons to loyalists from South Africa in 1988. From 1992 to 1994, loyalists were responsible for more deaths than republicans, partly due to FRU. Members of the security forces tried to obstruct the Stevens investigation.
According to the Ministry of Defence, 1,441 serving members of the British armed forces died in Operation Banner; 722 of whom were killed in paramilitary attacks, and 719 of whom died as a result of assault, accidents, suicide or natural causes during deployment. This includes:
- 814 from the regular British Army; 477 of whom were killed by paramilitaries, and 337 of whom died from other causes.
- 548 from the Ulster Defence Regiment/Royal Irish Regiment; 204 of whom were killed by paramilitaries, and 344 of whom died from other causes.
- 17 from the Territorial Army; 9 of whom were killed by paramilitaries, and 8 of whom died from other causes.
- 26 Royal Marines; 21 of whom were killed by paramilitaries, and 5 of whom died from other causes.
- 26 Royal Air Force servicemen; 4 of whom were killed by paramilitaries, and 22 of whom died from other causes.
- 8 Royal Navy servicemen; 5 of whom were killed by paramilitaries, and 3 of whom died from other causes.
- 2 from other branches of the Army, who were killed by paramilitaries.
A further 45 former British military personnel were killed during Operation Banner.
It was announced in July 2009 that their next of kin will be eligible to receive the Elizabeth Cross.
According to the "Sutton Index of Deaths", at the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN), the British military killed 307 people (297 of whom were killed by the British Army, eight by the UDR, one by the RAF and one by the Ulster Special Constabulary) during Operation Banner.
- 156 (~51%) were civilians
- 128 (~42%) were members of republican paramilitaries, including:
- 111 members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army
- 11 members of the Official Irish Republican Army
- 5 members of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)
- 1 member of the Irish People's Liberation Organisation (IPLO)
- 14 (~5%) were members of loyalist paramilitaries, including:
- 7 members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA)
- 7 members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
- 6 were members of the British Army
- 2 were Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers
- 1 was a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR)
Another detailed study, Lost Lives, states that the British military killed 301 people during Operation Banner.
- 160 (~53%) were civilians
- 121 (~40%) were republican paramilitaries
- 10 (~3%) were loyalist paramilitaries
- 8 (~2%) were fellow British military personnel
- 2 were RUC officers
Analysis of the operation
In July 2007, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Ministry of Defence published Operation Banner: An analysis of military operations in Northern Ireland, which reflected on the Army's role in the conflict and the strategic and operational lessons drawn from their involvement. The paper divides the IRA activity and tactics into two main periods: The "insurgency" phase (1971–1972), and the "terrorist" phase (1972–1997). The British Army claims to have curbed the IRA insurgency by 1972, after Operation Motorman. The IRA then reemerged as a cell-structured organisation. The report also asserts that the government efforts by the 1980s were aimed at destroying the IRA, rather than negotiating a political solution. One of the findings of the document is the failure of the British Army to tackle the IRA at strategic level and the lack of a single campaign authority and plan. The paper stops short of claiming that "Northern Ireland has achieved a state of lasting peace" and acknowledges that, as late as 2006, there were still "areas of Northern Ireland out of bounds to soldiers".
The report analyses Israeli military theorist Martin van Creveld's comments on the outcome of the operation:
Martin van Creveld has said that the British Army is unique in Northern Ireland in its success against an irregular force. It should be recognised that the Army did not 'win' in any recognisable way; rather it achieved its desired end-state, which allowed a political process to be established without unacceptable levels of intimidation. Security force operations suppressed the level of violence to a level which the population could live with, and with which the RUC and later the PSNI could cope. The violence was reduced to an extent which made it clear to the PIRA that they would not win through violence. This is a major achievement, and one with which the security forces from all three Services, with the Army in the lead, should be entirely satisfied. It took a long time but, as van Crefeld [sic] said, that success is unique.
The US military have sought to incorporate lessons from Operation Banner in their field manual.
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More recently, the resurgence in loyalist violence that led to their carrying out more killings than republicans from the beginning of 1992 until their ceasefire (a fact widely reported in Northern Ireland) was still described as following 'the IRA's well-tested tactic of trying to usurp the political process by violence'……
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- Sanders, Andrew; Wood, Ian S. (2022). Times of Troubles: Britain's War in Northern Ireland. ISBN 978-0-7486-4657-9.
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