Operation Banner 1969 to 2007- British Forces in Northern Ireland



By Alan Malcher.


Operation Banner is not only the longest British military campaign it is also one of the most controversial and misunderstood. This is not surprising as most of the facts have been distorted by IRA propaganda and disinformation.

As discussed in my post, ‘NORAID- Americas Plastic Paddies’, one of the main misconceptions promoted by the IRA over the years is the belief in the ‘Troubles’ being inseparable from the history of Irish republicanism – a continuation of the fight for Irish freedom and a united Ireland. This could not be further from the truth.

The IRA and their supporters deliberately overlook the fact that the majority of citizens living in Northern Ireland wish to remain part of the United Kingdom and this is their democratic right. Apart from this being the case among the Protestant community which represents the majority; declassified Top Secret documents, discussed later, also show that not all Catholics were interested in a United Ireland. Consequently, the IRA never acted on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, they simply ignored their wishes. The IRA, which represents an insignificant number of citizens living in Northern Ireland, rejected democracy in pursuit of their own political agenda.

Segregation – A climate of hate, intolerance and paranoia. Not a call for a united Ireland

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.

After being inspired by the 60’s counter culture and the civil rights movements 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 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, which were manned 24/7 by members of their community, were erected to protect them. This was the start of the so-called ‘No Go Areas’ where no one outside their community, including the Police, were allowed to enter.

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. Photographs of the period show parts of Belfast resembling the London Blitz. The British Government had no option but to send troops to Northern Ireland, dissolve the Northern Ireland Parliament and rule the province from London.

The role of the army appeared straight forward: to remain neutral, to uphold law and order and the rights of the people of Northern Ireland to democratic and self-determination.

The British Army was welcomed by both communities and were often served tea and toast by local residents when entering catholic areas. The IRA, who had been totally discredited for failing to protect their communities became known as ‘I Ran Away’ and this was painted on walls within catholic areas.

(The type of photograph the IRA did not want NORAID to see)

Whilst the army brought a degree of stability to Northern Ireland there was violent infighting within the ranks of the IRA. This resulted in the IRA being renamed the Provisional IRA. This new version of the IRA was not interested in a peaceful Northern Ireland – although the Catholic community had been calling for civil rights, not for the unification of Ireland, the IRA 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 gun battles with the army and police, the use of car bombs, the bombing of factories and public buildings were increasing each month.

On 6 February 1971, 20 year-old Gunner Robert Curtis of the Royal Artillery was shot in the head by an IRA 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 1 Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers, were lured from a Belfast pub to the isolated Brae off the Ligoniel Road by an IRA ‘honey trap’, they were shot dead by waiting gunmen.  The soldiers were unarmed.

Robert Curtis – first soldier killed during Operation banner

Murdered by 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 and this does not include those which failed to explode; more than 100 civilians were injured as a result of these indiscriminate explosions.

During one night alone, 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 IRA 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.

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 distant gun battles – the metallic sound of the terrorists Armalite rifles, following by the distinctive sound of the army’s SLR’s returning fire, and the rumble of distant explosions.

In ‘Bandit Country’ (Remote border regions) the use of IED’s increased.

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 is the attached document authorising the use of heavy weapons, including the Carl Gustav 84mm anti-tank gun.


Loyalist Terror Groups- the main threat to both Northern and Southern Ireland?

The history of the Troubles continue 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, the IRA 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, by 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

IRA 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)

The Loyalists were able to call on a large number of Protestants to support their political agenda. 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)

Out of the two regular expressions used by the media to describe Loyalist terror groups: ‘Paramilitaries’ and ‘Sectarian Death Squads’, the former accurately fits the description of these organisations because they conducted a protracted campaign of sectarian murders. Various groups and loose affiliates frequently drove through Catholic areas and abducted people at random. After taking them to isolated areas they were shot in the head and their bodies left at the side of the road. Loyalists were also involved in random machine gun attacks against Catholics and bombed Catholic pubs. UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) leader Gusty Spence reflected the attitude at the time, “If you couldn’t get an IRA man you should shoot a tag {derogatory term for an Irish Catholic}, he’s your last resort…” Although he used the word ‘he’ women were not exempt from being targets.

As it is extremely difficult to ascertain whether a person was murdered simply for being Catholic; several researchers cautiously estimate that the UVF alone may have murdered around 500 Catholics.

As well as the deployment of sectarian murder squads, the machine-gunning and bombing of Catholic pubs in Northern Ireland with the intention of causing maximum casualties, the UVF also exported their violence to the Irish Republic.  On 17 May 1974, four car bombs exploded in Dublin and Monaghan killing 33 civilians, including a woman who was nine months pregnant, and injuring 127.

One of many bombs in Belfast

Republic of Ireland fearful of a British Withdrawal from the North

Recent declassified government papers show that at the height of the Troubles Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a number of meetings with selected members of his cabinet to discuss the feasibility of a military withdrawal from Northern Ireland and repartitioning the country in favour of the Irish Republic. (See attached documents)

Senior civil servants warned that 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 these meetings were classified Top Secret, there clearly had been a leak: 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.

Gerald Fitzgerald, the then Irish Foreign Minister, who would go on to be the Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Irish Republic) says, 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…” (The 1974-5 Threat of a British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland, Gerald Fitzgerald former Taoiseach, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol.17 (2006) , p141-150)

“ … 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 clear in our interests to do everything possible – which may not be very much- to try to ensure that the British stay…” (Ibid) Interesting to note the IRA was considered a major threat to the Irish Republic.

Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, 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)

Gerald Fitzgerald says, “In the event our concerns about a possible British withdrawal were eased in the immediate following months. Our efforts to alert informed British opinion indirectly of the dangers involved seemed to have paid off” (Ibid)

“Looking back”, Fitzgerald says, “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)

Stephen Resrorick KIA South Armagh February 1997; holds the tragic distinction of being the last soldier killed in Northern Ireland.


Although within a post of this nature it is impossible to cover a conflict which lasted 38-years, we can see that the deployment of troops to Northern Ireland was to protect both communities and help restore law and order. It was not, as the IRA claim, an army of oppression. We also see the IRA constantly rejecting the democratic wishes of the majority of Northern Irish citizens to remain part of the United Kingdom. Finally, senior civil servants in London and senior politicians in the Irish Republic were fully aware that a British military withdrawal would have resulted in a civil war which was likely to engulf both sides of the border, as Gerald 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

Security Forces killed         1,117

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)


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