Peacekeeping: Ireland Still Simmers

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July 23, 2014: For the last 900 years Britain has been trying to pacify Ireland. Over the last twenty years the peacemaking efforts have actually achieved a level of peace not seen for centuries. Another milestone was achieved on July 12th 2014 where, for the first time, the annual march of pro-British Irish Protestants in Northern Ireland (Ulster) did not erupt in violence when the marchers sought to pass through a Catholic neighborhood. For the first time the marchers agreed to stop short of the Catholic area and after a short speech and a few songs, turned around and left without any violence breaking out. This was part of a trend.

In 2005 the last major Irish Catholic terrorist group, the IRA agreed to disarm. Despite that gesture the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland continued when the Irish Protestant terrorists saw this concession as a victory for their cause and groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association became more violent.

This violence often occurred during annual events celebrating past Protestant triumphs in Ireland. Every year pro-British “Orange Order” groups march to commemorate Protestant king William III’s victory over a Catholic army in 1690. This made northern Ireland safe for many Protestant migrants from England and Scotland. In 2005 the British, who still control Northern Ireland, agreed to stop tolerating these Orange Order marches through Catholic neighborhoods. The British deployed police and troops to prevent such marches, but the Protestants rioted anyway and that continued until 2014.

In 2005 Protestant mobs, some of them containing several hundred young men, went running through the streets, attacking motorists, hijacking buses to rob the passengers and trashing Catholics and Catholic property wherever they could find it. Clashes with security forces were frequent. Some 2,000 soldiers and police used rubber bullets and water cannon in an effort to control the mobs. Several hundred people were injured, including over 60 soldiers and police. Most of the injuries were due to thrown rocks or rubbish. Worse at least 40 gasoline bombs were thrown and there a few instances of gunfire, some of it from automatic weapons. Several people were wounded by bullets and police made about 20 arrests.  The Protestants claimed they were fighting an unjust peace deal in which the Catholics are being given everything. They also believed that the IRA wasn’t really going to disarm, which, given the Protestant violence, seemed a reasonable precaution for Irish Catholics. But the IRA did disarm and the public pressure shifted to the Protestant extremists and year by year the “hard men” on both sides got softer,

At the same time both the IRA and Unionist groups also evolved from rebels into gangsters. The 2005 Unionist violence was also a cover for many purely criminal acts. By 2005 the IRA and Unionist gangs controlled the growing drug trade in Northern Ireland and had also taken over most of the usual criminal activities (prostitution, loan sharking, hijacking, bank robbery, and so on). Thus the Unionists believed that the IRA peace deal would cause the police to leave the IRA gangs alone, and concentrate on the Unionist ones, if only to encourage the IRA to keep the political peace. The Unionist political violence is a reminder to the police that the Unionists deserve a little consideration as well.

The British had already cooperated by withdrawing their troops after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1997. This process took a decade to complete. But the continued outbreaks of extremist violence led British special operations troops to return in 2009, not to fight but to collect intelligence on who was really doing what to whom.  The original British Army operations in Northern Ireland, dubbed Operation "Banner", ran from 1969, when the insurgency in Northern Ireland revived, until 2007, when the province was deemed safe enough to withdraw all military forces.  "Banner" was the longest continuous deployment of the British Army in history.  

With the peace agreement in place and the primary combatants, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Association, standing down, many people assumed that there would no longer be a need for the military to step in clamp down on terrorism.  Many also assumed that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) would be able to keep a lid on any dissident republican violence.  

However, smaller Irish terror groups like the Real IRA became more active and deadly.  The problem of dissident republicans, and their potential to turn Northern Ireland once again into a virtually war zone, has had the British government taking no chances.  Thus, the SRR (Special Reconnaissance Regiment) returned in 2009 to keep tabs and gather intelligence on groups like the Real IRA and Continuity IRA. 

Specialist units have long played a major role in the counter-terror war in Northern Ireland.  The Special Air Service (SAS) at one point had an entire troop dedicated to carrying out operations against IRA targets in the province.  Less well-known, however, was the 14th Military Intelligence Company, informally known as "The Det" (The Detachment).  The 14 Det was the forerunner of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, carried out the exact same duties, and was, during its operation, regarded as possibly the most effective counter-terrorist intelligence organization in the world. 

The purpose of The Det, unlike the SAS in Ulster, was not to arrest or neutralize IRA operatives, but to covertly gather intelligence on them.  Operatives went through a secret program that included covert photography, surveillance and counter-surveillance tradecraft, disguise, accent training (to make the operators sound native Irish), unarmed combat, and, of course, close-quarter battle and weapons training.  Although not tasked with confronting or capturing suspects, members of the 14 Company were notorious for being armed to the teeth, given the nature of their work, often carrying MP5 submachine guns and 9mm pistols on their persons and in their surveillance cars. 

The group's work paid off, disrupting dozens of terrorist attacks and providing the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) with the information of dozens of IRA members and sympathizers.  Most consider the unit's experience to have been a major success.  The Det would provide the information they gathered from taking photos or bugging rooms to the RUC's HMSU (Headquarters Mobile Support Unit), or the SAS, who then arrested or killed the terrorists. 

With the advent of the War on Terror, the unit morphed into the new Special Reconnaissance Regiment in 2004.  This was done not only because the war in Northern Ireland was seen to be essentially over, but because the British military needed the same kind of surveillance and intelligence gathering skills, but needed it applied to Islamic terrorism in place like Iraq and Afghanistan.  The SRR receives the same training as the old 14 Military Intelligence Company did, and has seen service all over the world. 

 

 


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