Irish Studies

An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland

Following the release of An Army of Tribes, author Edward Burke discusses the behaviour of soldiers and their commanders and his exploration of the autonomy of British infantry units in Northern Ireland. 

In July 2012, I decided to walk the 303 miles of the Irish border for charity. I had recently returned from a year and a half in Afghanistan, where security restrictions and high fences had limited my movements. I was rewarded with walks along twisting boreens arched with canopies of ash, scrambles over sentinel hills such as Cuilcagh or Slieve Gullion and long pauses at the ethereal loughs of the Ulster marches. Battle sites were also strewn across my path, as I walked through or past places such as the Barnesmore gap, Benburb, and Moyry pass. These were often remarkably serene places: is very difficult to find anything but peace at ‘Bloody Pass’, the Upper Lough Erne site of a massacre of Jacobite soldiers after the Battle of Newtownbutler in 1689. I was treated with an immense kindness and not a little curiosity during my hike along the border. In quieter moments, people would relate to me some darker stories. Standing on a wind-stripped hill in west Tyrone, a Catholic farmer told me how his only neighbour, serving in the local Ulster Defence Regiment battalion, would lie in wait at night in a field his house to taunt his elderly mother with sectarian abuse.

Grievance and violence in such a setting was extremely intimate, with complicated, often highly localized, motives. As I walked and tried to get my head around such accounts, I became increasingly curious as to how British soldiers made sense of such a political and social landscape, what were the accepted narratives and ‘truths’ that enabled them to function, to do ‘a job’ and emotionally respond to casualties during this most violent of period of the Troubles? Too often, at least in Irish Republican narratives, the British Army has been unhelpfully demonised; atrocities inevitably lead to the top and everything was planned from the outset. The divergent motivations, experiences, and emotions of soldiers in different units are lost in such accounts.

Out of that long walk came the idea for a book, one that took more than five years to research and write. The central argument of An Army of Tribes is that British Army small infantry units enjoyed considerable autonomy during the early years of Operation Banner and could behave in a vengeful, highly aggressive or benign and conciliatory way as their local commanders saw fit. The strain of civil-military relations at a senior level was replicated operationally – as soldiers came to resent the limitations of waging war in the UK. The unwillingness of the Army’s senior leadership to thoroughly investigate and punish serious transgressions of standard operating procedures in Northern Ireland created uncertainty among soldiers over expected behaviour and desired outcomes. Mid-ranking officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) often played important roles in restraining soldiers in Northern Ireland. The degree of violence used was much less than that seen in the colonial wars fought since the end of The Second World War. But overly aggressive groups of soldiers could also be mistaken for high-functioning units – with negative consequences for the Army’s overall strategy in Northern Ireland.

Unchecked cohesion has a way of turning on its master. Too often a detrimental, excessive and ultimately deviant loyalty to the regiment or its sub-units could seriously damage government policy and the reputation of the British Army in Northern Ireland. The fear of ostracism from the group, away from leaders that have taken on a charismatic role of influence, is often too great for young soldiers to refuse to carry out collective tasks or stand witness against other soldiers. As an NCO in 1st Battalion, Scots Guards observed, a deviant but charismatic Sergeant could ‘ruin’ a platoon in weeks, as young soldiers began to emulate him. Only sound officership and a strong sergeants’ mess can stop such a rot. But a ‘hyper-invested’ group, one that contains soldiers with proven combat records, can sometimes be confused for a high-functioning one in aggressive units. It takes a good commander to know the difference.

Edward Burke is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

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