Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thoughts on Insurgencies #9 North Ireland AKA The Troubles

Today I want to talk about The Troubles. I previously talked about Operation Banner An Analysis of British Operations in North Ireland.That is worth reading though it is a bit dry. So here we go.

For a brief recap the problems between England and Ireland probably go back 900 years or so. We will focus a bit more on current history. The Anglo- Irish war from roughly (start and stop points are hard for guerrilla wars) 1919 to 1922 ended up partitioning Ireland into 2 entities. The 26 counties that make up the majority of Ireland were granted Dominion status and the 6 counties that became Northern Ireland stayed part of the Empire. The 26 counties formally dissolved their last formal ties with Great Britain in 1949.

Northern Ireland makes up roughly 1/6th of the island of Ireland and is approximately 80 miles North to South and 120 miles East to West.

(Real quick Loyalists wished to stay part of the United Kingdom and were almost exclusively Protestant. Republicans wanted a united Ireland and were almost exclusively Catholic. Some folks may use Loyalist/ Protestant or Republican/ Catholic interchangeably.)

In Northern Ireland there was a slim Protestant majority and Catholics were narrowly outnumbered. The Protestants were generally loyal to England and the Catholics generally wanted a united Ireland. Protestants held all political power and filled the vast majority of the police and security forces. A slew of complicated voting laws kept power in Protestant hands.

Now we can fast forward to the 1960's. Protestant Loyalists have used their total grasp on power to discriminate against Catholics in terms of employment and housing. The narrow Catholic minority lived in cramped outdated housing and had massive unemployment.

This brings us to our first key point. People with nothing to lose are often willing to use physical force to change the established order that is the (real or perceived) reason for their undesirable situation.

The Irish Catholics were largely inspired by the American Civil rights struggle. They started organizing into groups to protest. In 1968 peaceful Catholic protests were suppressed by the Protestant government and Protestant Paramilitaries. Think Birmingham PD vs NAACP but the climate is cooler, everyone is white and the suppression is even more brutal.

I have heard the theory that the peaceful protestors were useful idiots put in place to get the RUC and Protestant Paramilitaries to overreact and let the IRA come back onto the scene. There is probably at least a shred of truth to this idea. 

In 1969 the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary AKA police force) and Protestant paramilitaries were brutally cracking down on Catholic Neighborhoods. A guy who lived in West Belfast at the time described them as "burning down streets and murdering people". After the Battle of the Bogside the British Army came in to stabilize the situation. Initially the Catholic community was happy to see the Army arrive to establish order. That honeymoon period ended pretty quickly. The early 70's were pretty messy with the notable Bloody Sunday On July 21 1972 where British Para's killed 14 unarmed protestors.

The British adopted a policy of open ended internment that some could argue was extralegal. Basically they rounded up all the IRA boys, tossed them in jail and threw away the key. It damn near worked except it was a massive IO (information operations) nightmare. They went back and forth on keeping these guys incarcerated. Hunger strikes by IRA prisoners were an IO nightmare for the Brits.

In any case during the late 60's and early 70's the IRA saw a resurgence that is difficult to believe. Coming into these events they were largely a group of old men just hanging out. Sort of like herpes the IRA never really goes away, they just go underground and wait till the right time to pop back up.

The Provincial IRA split off from the original IRA at this time. The IRA wanted to largely stand by while the PIRA wanted to act. This scenario of a more cautious group accepting peace and it's more aggressive branch forming a new group would repeat itself multiple times. These splits do not matter much at the big picture we are looking at but this one is notable as the PIRA had a much more local look than the overall IRA.

Historically the IRA was organized along roughly military lines. Recruiting was done through long term friends, neighbors and along blood lines. This made for an organization that was difficult to penetrate. It is important for us Americans to note that Europeans tend to stay in their neighborhoods/ villages/ communities much more than we do. Several generations of the same family living in a county is not at all uncommon. Penetrating an organization where members recruit folks they have known their whole lives is impossible.

During the mid 70's the IRA didn't need to recruit. The British Armies heavy handed tactics did it for them. As we discussed a couple paragraphs back their organization exploded. Like any rapid increase it had some growing pains. In particular their traditionally excellent OPSEC went to hell. They were seriously compromised which lead to a lot of arrests.

By the mid 70's the IRA had reorganized into the type of cellular structure we are used to seeing with Insurgent organizations.

Since the IRA typically recruited people they individually knew well it was a fairly casual process. Bobby who grew up a block over (and you knew was IRA) would ask if you were interested. If you were they would slowly bring you in. Maybe a potential recruit would do a few simple jobs (sit in a cafe and watch patrols, be a courier for innocuous items, etc) then maybe they get brought into an operation. The point is it might be a year or so before they were really into the mix of things.

As a general rule the IRA did not coerce recruits. This is a bad idea in general. People who do not genuinely want to be part of the organization are a significant security threat.

In Catholic communities everyone was involved in some part of the insurgency. Part of the reason was the IRA was part of the community.  Asking your life long neighbor to hold onto something, for the neighborhood  hardware store owner to sell you some stuff off the books, a nice old neighbor lady to occasionally host her 'nephews' for a few days, etc is an easy proposition. It helps that these community members were unhappy with the situation they were in but that probably wasn't necessary.

Many people were affiliated with the IRA to some degree. They fought to protect their communities against the Protestant Paramilitaries in times of need. However some were unwilling to go beyond protecting their community to acts of (real or perceived) terrorism. 

Occasionally the IRA would leak false information around potential informants. If that (false) information was acted on the informant would be questioned then killed.

In Northern Ireland people generally stay to their neighborhoods, or at least neighborhoods of the same group. Flags hanging on light poles or pained on street corners mark which group the area belongs to. Catholics stay out of Protestant neighborhoods and visa versa.

Initially training was conducted in rural areas. Quickly that became impossible. Training moved across the border into the Republic of Ireland and to international terrorist facilities, largely in North Africa.

Some members of the IRA joined the British Army. A good way to learn weapons, tactics, intelligence and exactly how their enemies fought. Others ended up in the US Army and Marines. These folks did their 3 year hitch then went back home well trained. The IRA got an excellent sniper or two this way.

In the 80's Libya was a huge supporter of the IRA. As AM noted conducting an insurgency that does not have outside support is almost impossible. It wasn't so much that Col Goddafi liked the IRA as that he hated the British. Libya gave the IRA TONS of Semtex, a whole lot of weapons (including shoulder fired AA weapons, RPG's and Dishka's) and tons of ammo.

The IRA provided local security in their neighborhoods (as the Protestant groups did in theirs). Interestingly despite the Troubles crime in general and murder rates were lower in Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK. The reason for this is that people didn't call the cops, they called the IRA. The IRA did not screw around. Beatings, kneecapping, tar and feathering and of course good old fashioned murder were common punishments. While arguably hypocritical (a guy might get punished for selling drugs outside of IRA sanction, while the IRA was also selling drugs) and harsh they definitely kept crime down.

Aside from security the IRA provided a variety of basic services to their neighborhoods. They built community centers, funded local programs, etc. Basically a shadow government. It has been said everything Hamas did in Palestine was stolen from the IRA's book.

Funding- Hate alone does not make an insurgency go around. The need money. Funding started with collections and raffles. Pubs in Ireland and the US having a donation box for 'the cause' was quite common for a long time.The IRA robbed a lot of banks but that got dangerous. Eventually like the mob they used funds to purchase legitimate businesses which would make a profit. Guys who never had 2 dimes to rub together opening million dollar Irish Pubs in major US cities was one way that funds were washed and used to make a legitimate profit.

Compartmentalization- IRA operations were compartmentalized to the utmost extent. First and foremost this minimized the damage any individual could cause. Second it insulated the operations cell from incriminating weapons/ equipment/ clothing to the largest extent possible.

The community largely aided in this. A sniper would not have the rifle until a few minutes before the OP. 30 seconds after taking the shot he would be out of the building. 5 minutes later he would be in new clothes (including gloves). 15 minutes later he would have showered then changed clothes again and be in a safe neighborhood.  That guy is now impossible to find, at least in the context of this OP, though they might get him later on other intel.

The IRA had female members. Some ran the classic honey pot. Others formed a direct action cell. They principally smuggled small incendiary devices into British economic targets in an attempt to disrupt their economy.

Caches- There is no 4th Amendment in the UK. Catholic neighborhoods (as well as Protestant ones) were semi regularly searched for weapons and explosives. Consequently the IRA perfected caching. Weapons/ explosives and special equipment were dropped in one cache to be picked up by the DA cell then after the OP immediately dropped into another cache. Some support folks would grab the guns, clean them and store them till they were needed again. These operational caches were used extensively to get weapons where the DA (direct action) folks needed them. In addition to operational caches deep caches were used. These were generally along the Survivalist "bury a bunch of guns in case we need them some day" sort of lines but on a much larger scale. Individual cells kept their own caches to minimize the chance of one senior logistics guy being nabbed and half the PIRA's guns getting captured.

The fusion and cooperation between international terrorist groups is worth noting. The IRA/ Libya link has been discussed already. In 2001 3 IRA hard cases who happened to be explosives experts were caught leaving Columbia where the had been training the FARC in exchange for drugs/ drug money. These two lovely groups were introduced by the Basque Separatists ETA.

Ultimately the conflict between the IRA and the government ended in a truce. Neither side of the conflict was winning and they were both tired. Along the way many of the legitimate grievances about housing and employment discrimination against Catholics were addressed which helped to improve their collective situation and thus temper separatist tendencies.

I have been writing for 2 hours now. May have some more thoughts but I cannot recall them. Am tired of writing so this post is done. May have more on the topic later.

Hope you enjoy the little lesson and just maybe can gleam some useful stuff out of it.


ron swanson said...

Excellent and informative post. Can you suggest some further books or other reading on the IRA and the subjects you discussed? Thank you.

Ryan said...

Ron Swanson, The report I mentioned in the beginning is pretty dry but very informative.

Anonymous said...

thats a pretty good summary of a complicated situation. We used to jake that if you were not confused about the troubles, then you didnt really understand what was going on. There are a number of excellent books. Tim pat Coogan has the definitive book on the IRA. If you search uTube, there is a 12 part history of Ireland by Robert Kee. The episodes on the Rising and Civil war are especially good, since they have testimony from survivors at the time. Tom Barry wrote an account of the Civil war called Guerila Days in Ireland, which became the manual of irregular warfare. Finally, this from TFB a few days ago...

Fatebekind said...

I recommend the Tom Barry book, Bandit Country by Toby Harnden,Coogans book on Michael Collins,Heck,any of the books by Coogan,With the Irish in Frongoch,by Whitmore,
The Green Flag by Robert Kee.
Rebel Hearts by Toolis,The Squad by Dwyer.

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