Operation Banner: the British Army in Northern Ireland

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British troops stand watch during Operation Banner (image courtesy UK Ministry of Defence)

The deployment of the British Army in Northern Ireland was mooted as early as 1966, when violence erupted between the newly formed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and armed Republicans. Late 1968 also saw talk of introducing the military as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and ‘B-Specials’ struggled to contain civil rights protests and the rioting and sectarian violence that followed. The British government and British army commanders, by all accounts, were reluctant to put troops on the ground in Northern Ireland. Two Northern Ireland prime ministers, Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark, also resisted the urge to request military assistance; to do so would be a sign their governments had lost control of the situation. But when rioting, violence and gun fighting erupted in the Bogside area of Derry in August 1969 it stretched the RUC dangerously thin, leaving Chichester-Clark with no alternative but to petition London to send in troops. This request was made on August 14th, as noted in British cabinet records:

“The Cabinet Security Committee authorised a formal request for the use of troops in aid of the civil power in Londonderry at 4.45pm, in view of the latest police reports indicating their inability to cope with a rapidly deteriorating situation.”

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British soldiers chat with Irish civilians in 1969 (image courtesy UK Ministry of Defence)

The British military intervention was welcomed by many Catholics, at least initially. Residents in Derry, Belfast and other hotspots often greeted British soldiers warmly, offering them cups of tea. The soldiers, they hoped, would be more neutral and even-handed than the RUC and ‘B Specials’. Other events in the second half of 1969 also gave Catholics some hope of improvement. On August 28th a British lieutenant general, Ian Freeland, took charge of security matters, removing these powers from Stormont and the RUC. The British Home Secretary, James Callaghan, twice visited Belfast to meet with government representatives; on his first visit in late August Callaghan issued a communique, promising to oversee sweeping reforms and protections for civil rights. In September the British Army began erecting the first ‘peace line’ to separate Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast. The Cameron Report into police brutality was also published in September; this report vindicated many of the Catholic community’s complaints about discrimination and police heavy-handedness, finding that there had been “unnecessary and ill-controlled force in the dispersal of the demonstrators” in Bogside. There was also a separate inquiry, overseen by Baron Hunt, into the structure and organisation of Northern Ireland’s civilian police service.

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A Loyalist mural laments the disbanding of the B Specials

In October 1969 the Hunt Report handed down a series of recommendations on security and policing. Hunt recommended the dissolution of the ‘B Specials’, a suggestion that was passed into law and finalised in March 1970. A replacement for the ‘B Specials’, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), was formed on January 1st 1970 and began operations three months later. The UDR was intended to be a part-time but well trained and non-sectarian security force. Hunt hoped it would recruit Protestants and Catholics in similar proportions – but the UDR failed to attract and retain sufficient numbers of Catholics. In the regiment’s first year only 18 per cent of its members were Catholic; the vast majority of its first recruits were Protestant and a good number of these (more than 1,400) were former ‘B Specials’. Despite attempts to integrate Catholics into the UDR, the regiment and its culture came to be dominated by Protestants and Unionist values. Many Catholic volunteers in the UDR were subjected to open and subtle intimidation by Protestants. Others were discouraged by policies and actions like the Falls curfew, internment and Bloody Sunday, which convinced many that security forces were targeting Catholics. By 1972 most considered the UDR a bulwark of Protestant and Unionist values, rather than a truly representative and non-sectarian regiment. Disillusioned Catholics abandoned the UDR and by 1975 fewer than four per cent of its members were Catholic.

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Soldiers arrest a man during the Falls curfew in July 1970 (image courtesy UK Ministry of Defence)

The honeymoon between Northern Ireland’s civilian population and the British military lasted but a few weeks. The Army made some initial attempts to win over Catholic communities but this goodwill was shattered by its reaction to civil disorder, which tended to be militaristic and heavy-handed. In April 1970 violence erupted in Ballymurphy, a desperately poor housing estate in western Belfast, after an Orange Order parade passed close to the fringes of the estate. Catholic youths clashed with Loyalists and a British company was sent into Balllymurphy to quell the violence. When the soldiers themselves were pelted with stones they responded by firing canisters of CS gas, which affected thousands of residents not involved in the rioting. According to British journalist Simon Winchester, the use of tear gas at Ballymurphy “welded the crowd together in common sympathy and common hatred for the men who gassed them”. In July 1970 the Army, frustrated by rising gun violence, swept into the Lower Falls, a Catholic stronghold in west Belfast. Soldiers locked down an area of 50 streets, imposed a curfew and carried out a house-to-house search for weapons. Due to an earlier tip-off the IRA had cleared the area of arms and personnel, so the soldiers found little – however the searches led to clashes between residents and soldiers and some violence. Five civilians were shot dead while others were injured by gunfire or CS gas. The British Army, once hailed as the protector of Northern Ireland’s Catholics, was behaving like their persecutor.

“Their appearance was clear proof that we had won the battle, that the RUC was beaten. That was welcomed. But there was confusion as to what the proper attitude to the soldiers might be. It was not in our history to make British soldiers welcome.”
Eamonn McCann, writer

A good number of Catholics opposed British military intervention from the outset. Moderate Nationalists objected to Operation Banner because it militarised society and exposed children to troops on a regular basis. They condemned it as a flawed solution, a foreign military response to an Irish civil problem. Republicans, of course, opposed any form of British presence in Northern Ireland, whether political or military. They considered the British Army a foreign imperialist force, deployed to enforce British sovereignty and provide muscle for the floundering Stormont government. A militant faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began calling for an all-out war against British soldiers, a tactic rejected by the IRA’s mainstream leaders. In late 1969 these radicals split from the ‘official’ IRA, later becoming known as the Provisional IRA. Through 1970 the Provisional IRA recruited members, attacked the “British occupation” with rhetoric and propaganda and sought to win support from Catholic civilians. Young IRA volunteers also provoked civil unrest and violence, such as the April 1970 Ballymurphy riots, aware this disorder would trigger a disproportionate military response from the British. It was a measured tactic, designed to poison civilian attitudes towards the British Army and drive Catholics towards the IRA – however as Sinn Fein leader Danny Morrison noted, it was still too early for the Provisional IRA to kill soldiers: “They couldn’t have sold it”.

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Paul Carter, 21, a British soldier shot dead in September 1971 (image courtesy UK Ministry of Defence)

By the start of 1971 the Provisional IRA was ready to go to war with the British Army in Northern Ireland. Its first victim was Robert Curtis, a 20-year-old soldier who was gunned down by a sniper on February 6th, while on foot patrol on New Lodge Road. Before the month was out the ‘Provos’ had killed another British soldier, two RUC officers and five civilians working for the BBC. These events triggered the resignation of prime minister James Chichester-Clark in March 1971; he was replaced by Brian Faulkner. Thew new prime minister made some effort at reconciliation, promoting a non-Unionist to his cabinet, appointing a Catholic as minister of state and giving Nationalists key roles in government committees. But most of Faulkner’s attention was on security and the increasing volume and ferocity of paramilitary violence, particularly from the Provisional IRA. Meanwhile, the British Army was fast losing whatever trust it enjoyed among the Catholic population. The final shards of this trust were shattered in January 1972, when British paratroopers opened fire on a protest in Derry, killing 14 people. The first investigation into ‘Bloody Sunday’ was corrupt and inept in equal measure; the Army refused to admit fault and was not held accountable for the brutality of its personnel. ‘Bloody Sunday’ hardened the divisions between security forces and Catholic civilians. The British Army had been landed in Northern Ireland to restore order by standing between Catholics, Loyalists and the police. But within 18 months British soldiers were enmeshed in a hornet’s nest of sectarian hatred and deadly paramilitary activity, with no possibility for victory and no avenue for withdrawal. The worst, however, was yet to come.

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1. The British Army was deployed in August 1969, as the RUC struggle to cope with the violence in Derry.
2. Operation Banner was intended to be temporary and to restore order by winning the trust of Catholic civilians.
3. British troops were welcomed initially, as was a series of reforms and inquiries in late 1969 that promised change.
4. The UDR was intended to be a non-sectarian security force but like the RUC came to be dominated by Protestants.
5. The Army’s response to the Ballymurphy riots, the Falls curfew and ‘Bloody Sunday’ all alienated Catholics, who felt they were being targeted and persecuted. The emergence and growing political and paramilitary activity of the Provisional IRA also hardened attitudes against the British soldiers in Northern Ireland.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole & J. Llewellyn, “Operation Banner: the British Army in Northern Ireland”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/northernireland/operation-banner/.