Operation Banner launched, 1969

Operation Banner is the official name for the nearly forty years that the British Army was officially deployed in the North of Ireland. It was launched on this day in 1969, in part because of the Battle of the Bogside and the riots and protests that it set off in the rest of the north.

It was clear that the Royal Ulster Constabulary could not handle (and did not tolerate) the rising voices of the Civil Rights movement, nor could it control the protests and riots that unfolded during that time. The civil unrest was made worse by the obvious bias that the RUC had against Catholics, Nationalists, and Republicans. Originally those communities welcomed the Army, thinking the soldiers would be more impartial and supportive. It soon became apparent that was not the case and as the British Army paired up with the RUC, a gradual souring took place within the community. This led to an uptick in those willing to fight against them and the enrollment in the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups boomed.

In 1970 a major rift between the Army and the Catholic/Nationalist community opened in Belfast. Soldiers who were searching for weapons in the West Belfast Falls Road area were fired upon so they imposed a 36-hour media blackout and curfew. Without the cameras, they were free to treat people and places however they wished and they destroyed property,  searched anyone they liked, rained abuse, and fired CS gas repeatedly into the densely populated neighborhood. In 1972 ties were completely severed when British soldiers opened fire on an anti-internment march in Derry. They shot 26 people, fourteen of whom died as a result. Again, recruitment in groups that opposed them flooded.

This seemed to be the status quo for Operation Banner and the resulting conflict known as the Troubles. Whenever participation in paramilitary activities dropped, the Army would publicly do something so tyrannical and brutal that it would bounce right back. There were also way too frequent examples of the Army working directly with the Loyalist and Unionist paramilitaries in illegal operations. That collusion combined with their other heavy-handed mistakes caused many people to turn against them, even if they had not been political before.

Over the next few decades a guerrilla war ensued between the Army and their opposition. At the height of their deployment, there were 21,000 British Army soldiers assigned to the North. According to CAIN, the soldiers killed 305 people outright during their deployment and over half of them were innocent unarmed civilians without any paramilitary background. Each death or brutal action led to retaliation and unrest in the neighborhoods and new recruits for the IRA.

By the time that the operation wound down, the Army had been at war in the north of Ireland for close to 40 years, making it the longest operation in their history. Other governments (the U.S. included) have sought to include the lessons they learned during Operation Banner in their military manuals. They say Operation Banner was a success. Others think that the Army did more to exacerbate the conflict than they did to help and that their presence actually made things worse. Regardless, Operation Banner officially ended on July 31st, 2007 – more than 38 years after it began. A Ministry of Defence report published later that year pointed out the failure of the British Army to tackle the IRA on any strategic level and questioned their lack of a single campaign authority and/or plan. This generation of warfare ended with a whimper and not a bang that had more to do with the ceasefires called by the paramilitaries themselves than it did with any action or victory by the British Army.

Today there are still over 3,000 soldiers in the North. Though they have mostly withdrawn from the streets of the cities, there are still troops in the region. Their role is considered residual and maintenance-oriented but their presence and deployment is still an incredibly divisive topic and many receive threats from time to time.

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