Gerry Kelly reviews Brits: the war against the IRA by Peter Taylor, Bloomsbury, £8.99 pbk
BRITS COULD be seen as the third instalment of a contemporary historical trilogy focusing on the conflict in Ireland.
Peter Taylor no doubt felt that after the publication of Provos and Loyalists a balance had to be struck -- the result being a book which chronicles British intelligence forces 30 year campaign of terror towards not only the IRA but the wider Irish community.
Taylor with 30 years experience of reporting from Northern Ireland is well equipped to tackle the most complex nuances thrown up with each of his ‘ventures into the known’.Over 50 documentaries and nine books have provided sufficient evidence that Taylor can be hard-hitting and thorough, although it is difficult not to think that he also has an abiding fascination with sadness and, indeed, tragedy.
This is a sympathetic, rather than a morbid or mawkish allurement, as the brief accounts in Brits given by soldiers such as ‘George’ and ‘Jamie’ -- their true identities are not revealed -- demonstrate..
Jamie, who ended up as a senior officer in the British army, explains how the army’s previous experiences in Brunei, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, where it had developed and practised a complex mixture of internal security and counter-revolutionary warfare measures, informed the attitude to dealing with the people of Belfast and Derry.
In Aden, ‘George’, who was to become a corporal in the Gloucester regiment in west Belfast, describes how in riot situations certain soldiers would advance towards the crowd and unfurl a banner on which was written Arabic the words ‘stop or we will open fire’. If they didn’t the threat would be carried out.
At other times, ringleaders would be singled out and “someone would drop him... That’s what would happen. And then they’d all disappear”.
“We weren’t governed by the same rules that we were in Ireland. The lads could be a lot rougher, a lot harder because we never had the newspapers there... or anyone who could see what we were doing. It made a lot of difference because you were given freer hand across the board. You could just be a lot harder, a lot tougher and a lot more ruthless.”
His regret at the introduction of the Yellow card ‘rules of engagement’ is obvious -- not that it prevented similar atrocities to those committed by the British in the Far and Near East being carried out on the island of Ireland under the name of peacekeeping.
However, when the British troops first hit the streets of Belfast in August 1969 the last thing they expected was that they were going to be dealing with another ‘anti-colonial’ conflict like Aden. After an initial and brief ‘honeymoon’ period, they soon became aware of the need to revise their initial assessment.
George is one of many informative sources from all levels of British counter-insurgency involvement -- military, political and intelligence -- whose contributions combine to make up what, at times, can be a harrowing read as they recount incidents in which many innocent people died, needlessly.
Another poignant aspect of Taylor’s book, especially for the general or less-informed reader, is the indication it gives of the massive resources and draconian, anti-democratic methods employed by the British state in its struggle against militant republicanism, the impact of which goes far beyond the conflict in the north of Ireland.
Peter Taylor captures these attitudes and developments wonderfully and it is not surprising that Brits’ was short listed for the Orwell prize.
Although a new chapter for this paperback edition provides an up to date insight into the current peace process, an analysis of the continuing efforts of intelligence services in recruiting informers and agents would have been welcome to what otherwise is a coherent account.
Nevertheless, the final book in Taylor’s trilogy undoubtedly helps us to ‘broaden and amplify’ our understanding of what is already a complex situation.
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