Critical Evaluation Of The Types Of Counter-Terrorist Policies Employed In Northern Ireland In The Period Of The ‘Troubles’

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A critical evaluation of the types of counter-terrorism policies employed in Northern Ireland in the period of the ‘Troubles’ (1970-98).

Various counter-terrorist policies were employed in Northern Ireland in the period of the ‘Troubles’ to combat activity of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and due to a split in December 1969 (McCleery, 2012, p.412), its factions: the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). This essay will critically evaluate six measures, which are as follows: Falls Road Curfew (July, 1970); Internment (August, 1971); Operation Motorman (July, 1972); Criminalisation and Ulsterisation (mid 1970s); Loughgall (May, 1987); Gibraltar (March, 1988).

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Internment, which involved detention without trial, was introduced in August 1971 as a response to increased PIRA activity and violence, (Thornton, 2007, p.91; McCleery, 2012, p.413). However, Patterson (2008, p.508) argues that the failure of preventing the escalation of PIRA campaign due to the ‘hearts and minds approach’ of government led to the implementation of the policy. He adds that should more have been done in order to address “no-go” areas initially, the resulting chaos may not have occurred. While the operation of 1971 has been termed as a failure (McCleery, 2012, p.428), Sanders (2011, p.241; 242) states that internment had been previously successful in reducing the IRA’s capacity when used in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Internment heightened tensions between the nationalist community and security forces, which Sanders (2011, p.242) argues was a result of poor intelligence, a majority of those interned were innocent. McCleery (2012, p.428), however, suggests that it was not poor intelligence, but limited intelligence. Still, the arrests of non-terrorists undermined the legitimacy of the policy (LaFree et. al, 2009, p. 36), which was also seen as contrary to the idea of rule of law and resented by the Catholic community. It lead to an increase in the scale of and support for the IRA campaign (Kingston, 2007, p.4; McCleery, 2012, p.428) due to the radicalisation of the nationalist community. McCleery further adds that the policy was “narrow-minded,” for the effect it would have on nationalists was not taken into account. Thornton (2007, p.92; p.93) suggests that while the operation was lacking in skill and intelligence required from army due to its controversial nature, the interrogations themselves proved to be fruitful; the army’s tactics were effective in both gaining information from those detained and frightening those who had a chance of being so. In fact, PIRA’s ‘torture regime’ propaganda served as a bolster to invoke fear in future detainees (Thornton, 2007, p.95).

The Criminalisation/Ulsterization policy of the mid 1970s intended to treat paramilitary prisoners convicted of terror offences as ordinary criminals as opposed to political prisoners (Bamford, 2005, p.584; O’Rawe, 2005, p.123), the ‘special status’ of which they previously enjoyed. As a result of protests, including the Blanket protest; the Dirty protest and Hunger Strikes, led by Bobby Sands in 1980-81, the demands were ultimately granted (LaFree et. al, 2009, p.36) but on government’s terms (O’Rawe, 2005, p. 182). The Hunger Strikes resulted in a surge of support for PIRA, who manipulated the prisoners participating and politicised the strikes to malign government and entered electoral politics through its political wing, Provisional Sinn Fein in 1982 (Bamford, 2005, p.585; White, 2013, p.274).

While LaFree et al (2009, p.29) do not elaborate on Criminalisation and Ulsterisation as a criminal justice intervention, merely stating that it was a failure and was rescinded in 1981, Bamford (2005, p.594) argues that it eventually resulted in the ‘Supergrass’ trials that decimated the ranks of paramilitary groups and thus was not a failure. However, LaFree et al (2009, p.33) also establish that there was a major increase in terror attacks shortly after the implementation of Criminalisation and Ulsterisation, as well as Loughall and Gibraltar. LaFree et. al (2009, p.35; p.36) conclude that three of the six interventions implemented produced backlash effects: Internment, Criminalisation/Ulsterization and Gibraltar. McCleery (2012, p.428) agrees that there was an influx in unprecedented violence following internment.

Operation Motorman, launched after ‘Bloody Friday,’ which itself followed ‘Bloody Sunday,’ (Bamford, 2005, p.583) was met with little resistance on 31 July, 1972. It increased military presence in Northern Ireland and established certainty of consequence of republican strikes (LaFree et al, 2009, p.37). Motorman focused less on arresting terrorist suspects, more on clearing the areas and preventing paramilitary groups from operating in these areas (Thornton, 2007, p.583). LaFree et al look at the long term effects (2009, p.29) of the military interventions to asses their impact and find that Operation Motorman was the most successful in terms of a deterrence for there was a substantial decline in republican terrorist attacks for many years following Motorman (p.33; p.36).

By the mid 1980s, PIRA had come to recognise that its campaign was effectively being contained by and thus escalated in violence in an attempt to gain or sustain control of areas of the border region (Kingston, 2007, p.6). On 8 May 1987, eight PIRA volunteers attempted to carry out an attack against the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) station at Loughgall (Kingston, 2007, p.6) and were, due to intelligence and co-ordination of security forces, successfully thwarted (Bamford, 2005, p.596). PIRA became increasingly active in Europe (Bamford, 2005, p.597) and in November, 1987, intelligence indicated there was a conspiracy of a bomb attack, targeting military personnel in Gibraltar, thus security forces co-ordinated a surveillance operation with Spanish authorities into the suspects. On 6 March, 1988, the suspects were killed and speculation ensued whether the security forces overreacted (LaFree et al, 2009, p.31; Bamford, 2005, p.599).

The Loughgall ambush and the Gibraltar incidents were testament to the fact that by the late 1980s, intelligence was a successful counter to hinder activities of paramilitary groups, for the security forces had achieved a considerable measure of success in obtaining high quality intelligence that was both accurate and extremely reliable (Bamford, 2005, p.596). On the contrary, Loughgall and Gibraltar have been termed as targeted assassinations by military (LaFree et al, 2009, p.27), the latter of which was construed by activists to be a brutal overreaction (LaFree et al, 2009, p.36). However, it has been suggest that public reaction to lethal force in counter-terror operations was mixed, though the operation itself was deemed successful for it prevented a terrorist attack and demonstrated the effectiveness of intelligence (Bamford, 2005, p.598).

Severe operations such as Loughgall and Gibraltar produced more backlash as opposed to deterrence (LaFree et al, 2009, p.37). Kingston (2007, p.10) accedes that it is plausible that in the case of Gibraltar, a non-lethal intervention would not have given rise to violence and loss of life that the shooting of the IRA personnel did.

What began as a routine search operation due to intelligence reports of weaponry, turned violent (Williamson, 2017, p.70), thus resulted in the embarrassing political fallout (McCleery, 2012, p.407) and disaster (Thornton, 2007, p.88) known as the Falls Road Curfew. LaFree et al (2009, p.36) infer that strategic benefits of the Falls Road Curfew were overshadowed by ransacking of private homes and the killing of civilians; and its failure at reducing terrorist attacks was hardly surprising. This view is supported by Thornton (2007, p.87; p.88) who attributes the curfew as a turning point in relations between army and the Catholic community, in which the army seemed to have lost all impartiality. Until then, the army were seen as the peacekeepers between Protestants and Catholics (Thornton, 2007, p78). The situation exacerbated; cost of alienating nationalists and increasing the legitimacy of the IRA was of more gravity than the amount of weaponry found (Sanders, 2011, p.241). Warner (2017, p.336) however, suggests that the Falls Road Curfew did not immediately lead to a bitter deterioration of relations and that friendly relations between the army and Catholic community continued until the latter half of 1970.

PIRA encapsulated on the increasing anti-Army sentiments, adopting a more aggressive stance of an insurgent force, with increased levels of recruitment, support propelling a campaign to further downgrade the image of the Army in the eyes of the Catholic community (Thornton, 2007, p.89), by way of attempting to force troops to shoot children who PIRA used as petrol bombers; supplying false intelligence to induce wrongful arrests of innocent persons.

The curfew, while an isolated event (Patterson, 2010, p. 509) showcases the force of the army, and General Freeland who had previously been (Thornton, 2007, p.86) constrained by political interference. Thornton (2007, p.86) further credits the newly-elected Conservative government in London for the severity of Freeland’s crack-down. However, Warner (2006, p.328; p.337) offers a contrasting view, that the decision to implement the curfew was unilaterally taken by General Freeland alone; there had been no communication between him and government who viewed the curfew as disastrous. Warner (2006, p.331; p.329) also offers the backdrop of a substantial increase in violence from both factions of the IRA and targeting of troops during the weekend of June 27-28, as part of an ongoing campaign that had begun in February (McCleery, 2012, p. 412; Thornton, 2007, p.90).

Intelligence was an important factor in the war against the republican movement (Sanders, 2011, p. 236; Moran, 2010, p.7). However, in the early 1970s, it was not operating effectively due to a poor working relationship, underpinned by lack of trust, between police and the Army (Moran, 2010, p.4; Thornton, 2007, p.90; Sanders, 2011, p.234; p.236) which Thornton (2007, p.90) speculates to be due to the former feeling their role was usurped by the latter. The RUC Special Branch was developed in the mid 1970s, along with an intelligence system designed to cope with a long-running terrorist campaign (Sanders, 211, p.238). The prime aim of intelligence became to pre-empt and prevent terror attacks; make the efforts of paramilitary groups seem futile – a waste of time and resources (Moran, 2010; Kingston, 2007).

Sanders (2011, p.242) sees the war-like approach adopted by in the early 1970s as a policy failure, highlighting internment and Bloody Sunday as key incidents that exposed “fundamental flaws” in the militarised strategy. They have also been speculated to be ineffective (Moran, 2010, p.4) and to have exacerbated the feeling of alienation of the Catholic community (Ramraj, 2006, p.388).

While controversial, the increased use of the SAS had a significant impact on hindering IRA operations due to targeted killings and intelligence-led campaigns, including that of Loughgall in 1987 (Kingston, 2007, p.5; p.6; p.8; p.11) wherein the IRA lost their most experienced unit. Kingston (2007, p.9) acknowledges that the morality of the SAS’ actions in these incidents is debated, but he holds the view that the military did not act with impunity (p.10). Kingston (2007, p.9) suggests intelligence-led operations of the SAS did not bring PIRA to a point of collapse, but did significantly limit the military options of PIRA. However, he also offers that while intelligence were on the receiving end of was excellent, there were also members in the IRA ranks who also contributed to their own downfall with by carrying out some reckless attacks (Kingston, 2007, p.7). In contrast, LaFree et al (2009, p. 36; p. 38) deduce that the impact of the SAS’ intelligence campaigns was limited, for they did not bring the PIRA campaign to an end.

The ‘Supergrass’ trials of the 1980s caused serious problems for PIRA (Bamford, 2005, p.595) in terms of spreading chaos and distrust among the ranks. Intelligence is seen to have been initially wasted on prosecution which was unsuccessful the actual conviction and overturn rate (Moran, 2010, p.7). As a result, however, the RUC turned more towards using informants for disruption as opposed to prosecution (Moran, 2010, p.7), which was far more damaging to IRA operations due to infiltration at the highest levels (Moran, 2010, p.15; Bew, 2011, p.20), evidenced by the revelation of Freddie Scappaticci, the head of PIRA’s internal security unit, as an informant (Moloney, 2007). Though the freedom exercised by Scappaticci is ethically dubious, for he was permitted to take part in and/or facilitate the executions of other informers in order to maintain his cover and that of other spies (Kingston, 2007, p.8).

After several failed attempts at talking (Bew, 2011, p.19), negotiations intensified in the 1990s (Thornton, 2007, p.104), with preset conditions, including a ceasefire. The outcome was The Belfast Agreement/The Good Friday Agreement, a culmination of decades of efforts to find a political solution to the resolution of the conflict (Ramraj, 2006, p.390; Bamford, 2005, p.583; Bennett, 2010, p.511). Thornton (2007, p.105) views the Northern Ireland operation as having been lost early on, suggesting that the political solution was in the best interest of Army, whose reputation had been marred considerably.

Bew (2011, p.20) argues that ‘hard power’ must be credited as a significant contributing factor in generating eventual peace; the process could not have occurred without the security forces’ strategy of heavily infiltrating and containing the IRA. It has been suggested that army had come to the resolution that an outright victory was not possible (Powell, 2011, p.24), while paramilitary groups had exhausted all options and were unable to facilitate the removal of presence in Northern Ireland and create an all-Ireland republic – as was their aim (Kingston, 2007, p.4; Powell, 2011, p.24). Talking to terrorists was not an innovation of the 1990s (Bew, 2011, p.18) but negotiations held in the 1970s and much of the 1980s resulted in the IRA intensifying their violent campaign by strengthening the perception that it yielded results. The timing in which the IRA were led into a peace they would not have accepted at the beginning of the process, was key (Powell, 2011, p.24) and it has been acknowledged that peace itself would not occur unless the IRA de-escalated their activities (Powell, 2011, p.23).

While measurement of success of counter-terrorism policies implemented in the Troubles is relative, some were disastrous, i.e. Falls Road Curfew (McCleery, 2012; Thornton, 2007) while others, such as Loughgall (Bamford, 2005; Kingston, 2007; LaFree et al, 2009) had a significant impact on the activity of paramilitary groups. Thornton (2007) excuses Army’s errors in the early years of involvement, suggesting trial and error was expected in a difficult situation. However, he infers that the army made many avoidable mistakes. LaFree et al (2009, p.38) argue that it was the implementation of political strategies which brought hope for permanent peace in Northern Ireland, not the ‘harsh’ criminal justice and military interventions. On the contrary, it has been suggested that the IRA’s “loss of freedom,” due to the contributions of the SAS and other special forces units in intelligence-led operations, led to the Republican movement adopting a political approach (Bew, 2011, p.24; Powell, 2011, p. 24; Kingston, 2007, p.12).


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