Ulster's restrained guardians

March 24, 1995

Paul Wilkinson praises the army and RUC's role in countering terrorism. The United Kingdom has experienced the most protracted and lethal of all indigenous terrorist campaigns in western Europe, the IRA bombing campaign in the 25 years from 1970 to September 1, 1994, when the current IRA ceasefire commenced.

This campaign, mainly centred on Northern Ireland, but frequently spilling over into attacks on the British mainland, and occasionally against British targets on the continent of Europe, has been more than twice as lethal as the ETA terrorist campaign against Spain, and has resulted in hundreds of deaths, thousands of serious injuries, and hundreds of millions of pounds of damage to property. So far the ceasefire seems to be holding.

Yet it should be borne in mind that the terrorists still have their weapons, explosives and organisational structure in place, and there is strong evidence to suggest that hardline IRA leaders are determined to keep the option of reverting to the bomb and the gun if they do not get what they want from political talks. It should also be clearly understood that there is a huge gulf between the demands of the IRA/Sinn Fein and the Unionist political parties representing the majority population in the province. A reversion to terrorist violence by a hardline Republican faction, if not by the whole existing IRA/Sinn Fein structure, must be borne in mind as a very real possibility. Hence it would be premature, indeed reckless, for the British government and its intelligence and police agencies to scale down drastically their counter-terrorism efforts when it is not yet clear that the ceasefire can be turned into a lasting peace.

In normal conditions in a liberal democracy the police have enormous advantages over the military in handling terrorism and other forms of civil violence. They have the assets of legitimacy and accountability in the eyes of the majority of the civilian population. Local police have the asset of close knowledge of local conditions and members of the local communities. This gives them the essential prerequisite for any effective response to terrorism, an extensive bank of intelligence and the means of constantly acquiring fresh intelligence in the course of the whole spectrum of police duties.

But sadly, in Northern Ireland in 1969, when public order broke down, and the RUC was perceived as a sectarian force and was demonstrably unable to cope, the then Labour government had no alternative but to send in the army to help restore public order.

The British army has achieved a truly impressive record in countering revolutionary war and major terrorist outbreaks around the world since 1945. British soldiers have shown enormous skill, courage and patience in carrying out these tasks, and their loyalty in carrying out instructions from the civil government has never been put in question. The army is steeped in the democratic ethos. It is doubtful whether any other army in the world could have performed the internal security role in Northern Ireland with such humanity, restraint and effectiveness.

In 1972 and 1973 the army chiefs in Northern Ireland clearly recognised that they could not defeat the Provisionals simply by acting as "substitute policemen" giving effect to the ordinary law. The Provisional IRA had in effect declared war on the government and the whole system of law, and by terrorism and intimidation they had rendered normal policing in certain areas (the so-called "no-go" areas) impossible. Moreover, by intimidating witnesses and juries and terrorising whole districts, they had succeeded in causing a breakdown of the normal procedures of the law. The army was charged with restoring order, but political constraints ruled out the use of martial law, ie the complete takeover of the machinery of civil government for the period of an emergency. Hence the British government adopted the only sensible alternative: the use of special powers legislation for the emergency to give the army and the civil authorities the necessary measures to suppress the insurgents.

This middle course involved maintaining the independence of the civil power, while at the same time establishing close army-police co-operation at all levels. By means of operations such as "Motorman" the army was able swiftly to end the "no-go" areas; the 1973 Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act enabled the army, by late 1974, to get on top of the security situation in Ulster.

In the climate of greater optimism engendered by Sunningdale, and with the phasing-out of internment, the emphasis of British security policy underwent a significant shift. The decision was made that the Royal Ulster Constabulary should be reformed and expanded so that it could become a thoroughly professional and impartial police force accepted by the law-abiding of both Protestant and Catholic communities and capable, in due course, of taking the major burden against terrorism. This policy of "police primacy" was well under way in 1976 and the leadership of Sir Kenneth Newman, who later moved from Ulster to be the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, played a considerable part in converting the RUC into the modern professional force it is today. Few outsiders can fully appreciate the stresses and risks faced daily by this courageous and highly disciplined body of men and women. Between 1969 and the end of December 1986 the force lost 235 officers through terrorist violence. By the early 1980s they were able to patrol in all the major urban areas.

Yet it would be a great mistake to assume that "police primacy" meant that the army became of only marginal value in combating terrorism. Against such a ruthless and heavily armed terrorist foe the RUC would simply have been unable to continue its patrols and investigations without army support. In addition to its greater firepower and tactical mobility the army also provided certain specialisms that are absolutely crucial in any major counter-terrorism campaign. An outstanding example of this is the technological innovation by the army's Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) experts. As early as 1972 they introduced the remotely-controlled tracked robot known as Wheelbarrow. This device proved to be one of the finest anti-bomb robot vehicles in the world. It provided a highly effective means of giving the bomb disposal officer a close-up view of a bomb without having to approach the device, and of delivering a means of neutralising the bomb. With the aid of such skills the army has been able to prevent the death and injury of hundreds of people.

But prolonged deployment in support of the police against terrorism has imposed particular strains on the young and relatively inexperienced soldiers on the frontline. This is illustrated by the controversy over the Yellow Card, which lays down circumstances when a soldier can open fire. There has recently been a heated debate in the press regarding the case of Private Clegg, tried and convicted for the murder of a girl passenger in a joyrider's car, and two Scots Guardsmen also convicted of murdering a civilian. It would be improper for me to comment on the details of these cases. However, I do wish to add my strong support for making a change in the law in order to enable a court to make a finding of culpable homicide. This would allow for flexibility in sentencing.

I firmly believe in the maxim "make the punishment fit the crime". The death of any innocent member of the public is a profound tragedy. Yet there is a vast difference between the position of a young soldier making a split-second judgement while serving in a terrorist emergency, perhaps during the hours of darkness, and a terrorist who goes out deliberately to bomb or maim his fellow citizens month after month. Walking the tightrope between under-reaction and over-reaction in the face of a brutal terrorist campaign, often targeted on the security forces, is bound to lead to tragedies of over-reaction and killings of innocent individuals by police and army, however carefully the Yellow Card instructions are drafted. But the army and police cannot be exempt from legal accountability and judicial procedures. The important thing is to try to ensure that the law is fair, sensible and workable. Tragic killing of civilians and acts of misconduct by a small number of serving soldiers should not blind us to the fact that the British army, UDR, the RUC and the RUC reservists, who together lost almost 1,000 lives in the 25 years of terrorism, gained a colossal achievement in preventing the conflict from escalating to civil war level, and in buying time for the politicians to get their act together and win the battle for peace. This is a truly heroic record, and it should be recognised as such.

All people of goodwill hope that the terrorism spawned by the Northern Ireland conflict has ended. The British and Irish governments deserve fullest support for their initiative in launching the Downing Street Declaration and for the patient efforts to transform the fragile ceasefire into a lasting peace. But we should not underestimate the extraordinary difficulties and dangers involved. The desire for peace can all too easily slide into a policy of unilateral concessions and appeasement. The Irish and American governments have made colossal concessions to the IRA without gaining anything in return. On the other hand Unionist suspicions of the real intentions of the British government, and their fears of secret deals being made between London and Dublin, remind us of the danger of alienating the majority population in the Province. Withdrawal of participation by the Unionist majority would be fatal to the peace process.

Nor should we forget that the security and political aspects of peace in Northern Ireland are interdependent; if the British government fails in its efforts to ensure a programme of decommissioning terrorist weapons, including Semtex, the IRA will be able to use repeated threats of a return to their terrorist campaign as a means of intimidating both governments and political parties, creating conditions which would render a genuine constitutional conference and democratic referendum impossible.

Paul Wilkinson is professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews. The above is extracted from his Mountbatten lecture at Edinburgh University: "The Role of the Military in Combating Terrorism".

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