Operation Temperer has returned to barracks for now, but while it was deployed it brought to mind my early days soldiering on Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. The tasks were very much the same – key point defence and overt armed support to the civilian police, and to be frank the equipment did not appear to have changed all that much.
The more recent terrorist attack at London Bridge again brought to mind Operation Banner, but this time in a different guise. There were terrible comparisons to The Troubles made on social media and it highlighted the fact that to my mind Operation Banner remains more misunderstood than known, even by those who served there.
This misunderstanding was most clearly seen early on in the Iraq campaign, in the trite comparisons made between the British Army’s experience in Northern Ireland and its illusory success in Basra, and the then ongoing experiences of the mostly US forces in central Iraq. The fact is that as a campaign Operation Banner is not well understood, and certainly not by those who would reasonably be expected to know most about it – the British military.
Few serving soldiers now have any experience of serving on Operation Banner, but even those that do, none will have experience of the 1970s and few will have had experience of the covert struggle. Yet understanding the ebb and flow of the campaign in the 1970s when the hard lessons were learnt, as well as being cognisant of the covert war are essential to understanding the conflict as a whole. Most who are ready with the glib comparisons served in the 1980s onwards when the campaign was relatively mature and growing in sophistication. We remember the Techniques, Tactics and Procedures, but fail to grasp the ‘why’ of the operational approach or even the theatre lay down.
The British Army’s ‘Operation Banner: An Analysis Of Military Operations in Northern Ireland‘ published in 2006 is a remarkable piece of succinctness, capturing almost 37 years in 98 pages. The publication is not designed to be a definitive history of the campaign, not can it be considering its classification that makes it unable to touch on covert operations, and its narrow focus on the military and excluding the role of the police in detail. In fact the definitive history of the campaign has yet to be written.
The British Army’s study is however a good overview of the campaign and has some hidden gems in plain sight (Republican terrorists killed 30% more Republican terrorists than the Army (page 2-12)). This together with the following should be the starting point for those wishing to place the campaign in perspective:
- ‘Big Boy’s Rules‘ by Mark Urban
- ‘Rebel Hearts‘ by Kevin Toolis
- ‘Policing Northern Ireland‘ by Aogán Mulcahy
To me it is remarkable how quickly Operation Banner has fallen from view, especially considering the fact the Republican terrorism remains very much active, albeit diminished. Yesterday’s wars are it seems, largely a matter for the historians, no matter how pertinent they are to the professionals of today.