British Army in Northern Ireland 1969 to 2007

EDITORIAL NOTE – I agree with a recent comment pointing out the title is misleading and it should be noted all branches of the military played an essential role in this operation, not just the army.

Operation Banner, the official name of the British military campaign in Northern Ireland, is among the most controversial and misunderstood British military engagements in recent history and this is not surprising due to the propaganda promoted by the IRA and other republican movements.   

The narrative of Operation Banner seldom mentions the IRA was not the only terrorist organisation during the 30 years of violence and often neglects to mention the majority of those living in Northern Ireland remained loyal to the crown. The predominantly protestant community insisted Ulster remain British and also engaged in acts of terrorism against anyone they considered endangered their British citizenship.  It is also seldom stated not all Catholics called for a united Ireland but expressing such thoughts were violently discouraged by the IRA and other republican movements within their community.

Author 1972 – Operation Banner

I served in Northern Ireland in 1972 the year officially listed as the most violent and the conflict was popularly called the troubles by people on both sides of the Irish border. Although the so-called troubles was constantly reported in newspapers and by television news networks across the world it was seldom explained the British army was upholding the democratic wishes of the majority who demanded to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Acts of terrorism by loyalists believing they were defending their British citizenship were also seldom mentioned.  Unbalanced and often biased reporting greatly assisted republican propagandists to reinforce their lie of being engaged in a popular uprising to force the unification of Ireland but in reality, the republican movements were non-democratic and rejected the political wishes of the majority.  Throughout the troubles news editors seldom asked the obvious question, if the British army are oppressors and the IRA are fighting for the people of Ireland why are the IRA bombing crowded civilian targets where the only victims will be men, women and children?

To protect the flow of finance and other support from some Irish Americans who believed the propaganda, the IRA did everything they could to hide the fact they were also being armed and financed by Libya’s Gaddafi who was the main sponsor for international terrorists.  Apart from hiding the fact they were sponsored by  an enemy of the United Sates and Israel,  members of the  IRA were trained at middle eastern terrorist camps financed by Gaddafi and trained alongside  members of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and European terror groups including the Red Army Faction (RAF) of Germany and the Red Brigades of Italy. The start of the conflict in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with the unification of Ireland, the IRA simply seized an opportunity to politicise legitimate issues connected with human.

Segregation based on a narrative of hate, intolerance and paranoia

Segregation along religious lines has always been the major issue in the political and social life of Northern Ireland and this has been the cause and effect of violence.

John H. Whyte (Interpreting Northern Ireland, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999, p8) illustrates this division by explaining the two factors separating Northern Ireland are endogamy and separate education. Separate schools, he says, resulted in the majority of people up to the age of 18 having no conversation with members of the rival creed and Nick Cohen (Guardian 23 July 2007) described this as ‘educational apartheid’. Whyte also says, employment was also highly segregated, particularly at senior management level.

Polarisation as a result of inequality was made worse by the Northern Ireland Parliament, based in Stormont, being dominated for over 50-years by unionists (Loyalists) and its attempts to solve political and social issues such as institutional discrimination against Catholics being regarded as too slow by Catholics and too quick by the Protestants (Loyalists). This, it is widely argued, gave rise to growing tensions and violence between the two communities.

Loyalist flags showing solidarity to Israel because the IRA had been trained by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and received arms and finance from Libya’s Gadaffi
IRA supporting the Palestine Liberation Organisation

After being inspired by the 1960’s counter-culture and the civil rights movement in America the Catholic community organised a series of peaceful civil rights marches in which thousands attended. These marches were met with violence from the Protestant community and as the number of marches increased so did the level of violence against them.

In 1968 Northern Ireland saw regular violence and rioting between Catholics and Protestants with the Royal Ulster Constabulary being attacked by both sides. Over 150 catholic homes in neighbouring protestant communities were burnt by Loyalist mobs resulting in 1,800 families being made homeless, and the Catholics quickly retaliated by burning protestant homes. This intercommunal violence resulted in families moving from mixed neighbourhoods to one’s exclusively housing members of their own religion and makeshift barricades guarded by members of their community were erected to protect them from sectarian violence. This was the start of the so-called ‘No Go Areas’ where no one outside their community, including the Police, were allowed to enter.

The UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) protecting a loyalist area

By the end of the year 19 people had been killed, a large number of police officers had been injured during riots; the community had been totally polarised, violence and arson against homes and commercial buildings continued.  Due to parts of Belfast resembling photographs of the London Blitz the British Government had no option but to send troops to Northern Ireland, dissolve the Northern Ireland Parliament and rule Ulster from London and the role of the army appeared straight forward: to remain neutral whilst protecting the two communities and supporting the police.  

Burnt out homes in Belfast
The sort of photograph the IRA did not want the world to see

British soldiers were welcomed as protectors by both communities and were given tea and toast by grateful residents.  In stark contrast to the British soldiers Catholics despised the IRA who had bragged they would protect them and made their feelings known by calling the IRA I ran away and painting this on walls.

Whilst the army brought a degree of stability to Northern Ireland there was violent infighting within the ranks of the Official IRA. This resulted in a split within the organisation and the creation of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and this new version of the IRA was not interested in a peaceful Northern Ireland. Although Catholics were demanding civil rights and were not interested in becoming part of the Irish Republic, PIRA seized the opportunity to use the prevailing widespread hate, intolerance and paranoia to fuel their own political agenda for a united Ireland.

From the start of 1971 Northern Ireland was turning into a war zone:  there were frequent gun battles with the army and police, the use of car bombs, the bombing of factories and public buildings and all were increasing each month. In the countryside and close to the border the IRA started using large IED’s capable of destroying armoured vehicles.  

Robert Curtis

On 6 February 1971, 20-year-old Gunner Robert Curtis of the Royal Artillery was shot in the head by a PIRA gunman whilst on foot patrol in the New Lodge area of Belfast. He was the first soldier to be killed during Operation Banner.  One month later (10 March 1971) brothers John McCaig, 17 and Joseph 18, along with 23-year-old Douglas McCaughey, who were serving with the 1st Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers, were lured from a Belfast pub to the isolated Brae off the Ligoniel Road by a PIRA ‘honey trap’, and the unarmed soldiers were  shot dead by waiting gunmen. 

The McCaig brother and Douglas McCaughey Murdered during IRA ‘honey trap’

From January to 9 August 1971, 13 soldiers, 2 police officers and 16 civilians had been killed and there had been 94 bomb explosions in July.  During a seven-month period the total number of terrorist bombs were 311, this does not include those which failed to explode, and more than 100 civilians were injured as a result of these indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas.

IRA – bombing civilian targets

During a single night there were 20 explosions and these coincided with gun attacks against the army and police, and in October there was a two-hour gun battle between 30 PIRA gunmen and 12 soldiers. 1971 was the start of the shooting war, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets and the regular use of car bombs against military and police patrols.  However, the worst was yet to come.

IED’s were a major hazard in rural areas

1972 was the most violent year of Operation Banner, with multiple attacks against the army and police being considered normal.  Many who served during this period remember the sounds of multiple gun battles, the metallic sound of the terrorists Armalite rifles, followed by the distinctive sound of the army’s SLR’s returning fire, and the rumble of distant explosions.

The following figures from the CAIN Project conducted by the University of Ulster show the intensity of the conflict during 1972:

Casualties due to terrorist action in 1972

Army      148 injured (106 killed)

Police       17 Killed

Civilians 248 Killed

 Total number of deaths 371

Injuries due to terrorist action (Security forces and civilians) 4,876

Shooting incidents 10,631

Explosions                  1,382

Bombs defused            471

Total number of explosive devices 1,853

Another indication of the violence of 1972 are documents authorising in extreme cases the use of heavy weapons including the Carl Gustav 84mm anti-tank gun.

The history of the Troubles continues to be dominated by extensive reference to the IRA but this is understandable because the organisation took every opportunity to publicise their political agenda through a constant stream of propaganda and disinformation. Due to this publicity many people tend to forget there were only two republican terrorist organisations, PIRA (the Official IRA was now little more than a name) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

Despite representing thirty percent of civilian deaths in Northern Ireland and their attacks inside the Irish Republic, the four main Loyalist terror groups, often referred to as paramilitaries by the press, have drawn far less publicity and international attention than the IRA.

Although due to the very nature of terrorism it is always difficult to obtain accurate membership figures the following are estimates from a number of researchers including the CAIN project.

Republican terrorists

PIRA 1,500


TOTAL 1,550

Loyalist Terrorists

UDA (Ulster Defence Association)  40,000

Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)               100

Red Hand Defence (RHD)                      50

Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF)               40

Red Hand Commandos                         30

Ulster Vanguard                                       Not known (links to Loyalist terrorists)

TOTAL                                                        40,220 (Potential active members)

Compared to the loyalists the IRA and INLA combined had an insignificant number of supporters and the loyalist community had a much greater potential for widespread violence. Loyalists were able to call on a large number of Protestants to support their political agenda and if necessary, fight to retain their British identity. For instance, after the British government took power away from the Northern Ireland Parliament the UDA organised a rally numbering 100,000 during the Parliament’s last sitting and on 10 March 1972, the Ulster Vanguard (which had strong links with Loyalist terror groups) held a rally in Ormeal Park which was attended by an estimated 60,000. During this rally William Craig, leader of the Vanguard, announced, “We must build up the dossiers of men and women who are a menace to this country, because one day, ladies and gentlemen, if the politicians fail, it will be our duty to liquidate the enemy”. (Boyd, Anderson: Falkner and the Crisis of Ulster Unionism. Anvil Books, Tralee, Republic of Ireland 1972. P100)

1 Para 1972

The widespread support this declaration of violence received from the loyalist community and only the army and RUC preventing a civil war, raised major concerns among senior politicians in the Irish Republic and among officers of the Irish Defence Force.

One of many hundreds of civilians killed or injured by IRA bombs

Republic of Ireland fearful of a British Withdrawal from the North

Declassified government papers show at the height of the troubles Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a number of meetings with members of his cabinet to discuss the feasibility of a military withdrawal and repartitioning the country in favour of the Irish Republic.

More civilians in Ulster were killed and injured by IRA bombs than the army and police combined

Senior civil servants warned such a proposal may result in civil war throughout Ireland. Widespread intercommunal violence, they said, may lead to an influx of Irish American volunteers supporting the IRA and members of the Orange orders from Scotland and England joining the Loyalists. They were also concerned that such a decision would provide opportunities for intervention from unfriendly governments such as the Soviet Union and Libya.  After listening to these concerns the proposal was dropped.

Although the meeting was classified top secret senior politicians in Ireland were made aware of the proposal and this was met with serious concerns regarding the future security of the Irish Republic.

Gerrett Fitzgerald, the Irish Foreign Minister who later became Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Irish Republic) said “if that had happened, we would not have been able to deal with the resulting backlash from avenging Loyalists.  There was a clear danger that such a withdrawal might be followed by full-scale civil war and anarchy in Northern Ireland with disastrous repercussions for our state as well as for the north and also possibly for Great Britain itself… We in the Republic had an important common interest with the Northern Ireland political party {SDLP}, which was a powerful barrier against the IRA, the openly stated agenda of which at the time was the destruction of the democratic Irish state and the submission by force of an all-Ireland social republic. .. We concluded that the choice lies between British rule and Protestant rule and it was quite clearly in our interests to do everything possible, which may not be very much, to try to ensure that the British stay…” …” (The 1974-5 Threat of a British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland, Garrett Fitzgerald former Taoiseach, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol.17 , 2006 , p141-150)

Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet of the Irish Republic, Dermot Nally said, “The possible consequences of Northern Ireland becoming independent were so horrific that we should on no account give any support to the proposal…” (Ibid)

1 Para

Garrett Fitzgerald also said, In the event our concerns about a possible British withdrawal were eased during the following months. Our efforts to alert informed British opinion indirectly of the dangers involved seemed to have paid off (Ibid)

Soldiers under fire

Looking back, Fitzgerald said, at the fraught period 30 years later, what remains most vivid in my mind about the time is the terrible sense of virtual impotence that I and others immediately involved felt in the face of the dangers which a British withdrawal would have created four our island and our state. Neither then nor since has public opinion in Ireland realise how close to disaster our whole Island came during the last two years of Harold Wilson’s premiership.” (Ibid)

Omagh bomb victims after the IRA left a car bomb in a road crowded with shoppers
Stephen Resorick, shot dead in 1997 holds the tragic distinction of being the last soldier killed during Operation Banner.


It is clear British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland to protect both communities and it was not, as the IRA propagandists claim, an army of oppression. We also see the IRA constantly rejecting democracy, the majority made it clear they wanted Ulster to remain part of the United Kingdom and firmly rejected any talk of being governed by the Irish Republic which they regarded as a foreign country.   

 Finally, senior politicians, civil servants and military officers in London and the Irish Republic were in no doubt a British military withdrawal would have resulted in a civil war which was likely to engulf both sides of the border.  As Garrett Fitzgerald put it, “I think the state {Irish Republic} was more at risk than at any time since our formation” (Ibid)

  Statistics – Northern Ireland during Operation Banner

The CAINE Project, at the University of Ulster have published the following figures in relation to operation Banner:

Civilians killed                           3,600

Soldiers killed                1,500

Royal Ulster Constabulary killed   302

Security Forces Injured      6,116

Civilians injured                47,541

Bombing incidents           16,208

Shooting incidents           39,923

(Note: During the research for this post I found a large variation of figures relating to deaths and injuries. Further independent research is required)

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

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