The Evolution of Counterterrorism in Northern Ireland

In the summer of 1969, long-standing tensions between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists broke out into open violence in Northern Ireland. Civil protests and heated dialogue turned to vandalism, riots and shootings. Out of this chaos emerged several militant groups, such as the loyalist Ulster Defence Force (UDF) and the anti-British Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), a militant offshoot of the IRA and Sinn Fein. British authorities largely ignored pro-Brit forces such as the UDF while fixing a worried eye on republican forces, particularly the PIRA, who “sought the removal of British rule from Northern Ireland through any means possible”. Violence and anti-British sentiment was particularly widespread in Ulster, where the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was unable to cope with the sudden violence. In response, elements of the British army were deployed to help stabilize the situation.

A conflict map of Northern Ireland depicting the violence that took place in individual wards. (CAIN: Northern Ireland Conflict)

British forces stationed in Northern Ireland quickly found themselves out of their depth, fighting an enemy who enjoyed a great deal of public support and freedom of movement; meanwhile, intelligence services lacked any real information about the area after decades of British engagement in the more exotic colonies. Although Britain’s entry into the so-called Troubles was difficult, the combined forces of the British army, SIS/MI6 and MI5, and the RUC’s Special Branch eventually developed into a well-oiled machine that relied on intelligence to coordinate their counter-PIRA efforts. Overall, intelligence was the key that enabled British forces to win the fight in Northern Ireland. In this article we’ll explore the growth (and benefits) of intelligence-gathering systems by the above-mentioned units, as well as addressing the often ruthless and semi-legal grey areas British forces often operated in to combat the PIRA. 

Local Policing and HUMINT

Members of the RUC – equipped with out-of-date British weapons – prior to the outbreak of violence in the late 1960s. (Steam Community)

In 1969, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was comprised largely of bigoted, risk-averse loyalists who had a difficult relationship with local Catholics. As the conflict wore on, however, the RUC became adept at gathering human intelligence (HUMINT) from the community it was responsible for. Already unpopular with locals, the RUC’s B Special reserve unit in particular was brutal in its approach to policing the Catholic population. The unit was eventually disbanded when it was revealed that many of its members were a part of the Protestant UDF. While the army set up shop in Ulster and attempted to gain control over the situation, they initially relied on the RUC — in particular Special Branch, the detective wing — to provide information to the troops, a task for which the RUC was incredibly ill-suited.

RUC riot cops attempting to disperse a crowd with CS gas during the early days of the Troubles. (Pinterest)

One British officer remarked that “intel-gathering was Special Branch’s biggest weakness”.  Initial reports produced for the army by the RUC were filled with assumptions and generalizations: PIRA fighters were described as “simpletons” whose bomb-making skills in particular were crude and ineffective (an incredibly inaccurate statement). Because they were Irish, and more particularly Catholic, PIRA fighters were dismissed as a backward and ineffective force – despite the obvious mayhem they had caused. In contrast to the initial RUC reports, the PIRA was actually a highly effective organization modelled on the British military system; basic training for PIRA hopefuls lasted longer (and had a higher attrition rate) than the British army equivalent.

PIRA trainees with a variety of captured weapons and some surplus British outfits. Despite their hodge-podge appearance, the PIRA developed a relatively comprehensive training regimen for its recruits. (Guns America)

After some pressure from the army the RUC eventually began trying new tactics. Previously having limited their patrols to Protestant neighbourhoods (for whatever reason), RUC constables began entering Catholic areas alongside British troops. These new forays into formerly “no-go” territory enabled the RUC to gain a better picture of their enemy, interact with the populace they served, and create a map of known PIRA hiding places. Meanwhile, Special Branch developed new interrogation techniques in conjunction with the army. Interviews with PIRA suspects were, more often than not, a means of recruiting informants. Special Branch interrogators became adept at “turning” captured PIRA members, even going undercover themselves and approaching potential informants in bars and social events. Between 1976 and 1987, Special Branch maintained some 50 reliable informants. Although it was extremely dangerous work— any “snitch” caught or suspected by the PIRA would be murdered and dumped in the streets as a warning — HUMINT gathered from reliable informants was one of “the most rewarding” sources of intel for British and RUC forces. 

A (likely doctored) picture of a PIRA member operating in Derry or Ulster. The success of the RUC informant network struck fear into many members of the PIRA and undermined unit cohesion. (

The RUC’s informant system grew to be so effective that roadblocks could be placed in time to foil an upcoming PIRA attack, a strategy that wasted enemy resources and frustrated them to no end. In 1987, the cargo ship Eksund was intercepted carrying hundreds of tons of armaments to the PIRA from South Africa; this intelligence coup seriously degraded the PIRA’s ability to continue fighting. Not only did the RUC’s HUMINT network provide information to enable successful army operations, it also notably sapped PIRA morale. The “Green Book”, an ideological handbook circulated amongst Irish Republican forces, noted that militants should avoid drinking too much because “Special Branch might be listening.” PIRA fears of informants led to much infighting, creating a climate of paranoia that ultimately degraded their ability to fight British forces. Rumours of Special Branch effectiveness also dissuaded many potential recruits, fearful of arrest or death. One former RUC detective noted that…

“…there’s an old Chinese saying: ‘It is 5,000 times cheaper to pay the best informers lavishly than a tiny army poorly’ ”.

A hasty roadblock set up somewhere in Northern Ireland. By gaining intelligence from informants, the RUC and other police branches were able to rapidly intercept PIRA cells. (The Irish Times)

After being overwhelmed and outclasses by PIRA forces at the outset of the Troubles, the RUC — Special Branch in particular — evolved into a formidable force, feared by the PIRA and respected by British forces. The RUC’s overhaul of its intelligence-gathering network enabled British forces to operate effectively while sowing fear and paranoia amidst PIRA ranks. 

Enter the SAS

SAS in “black kit” during Operation Nimrod, the raid on the London Iranian Embassy. (Wikimedia Commons)

The SAS’s entry into the Troubles, although by no means disastrous, proved frustrating for many members of the elite unit who felt unable to accomplish anything of value in the fight against the PIRA. The Special Air Service, a “top tier” military unit formed to create havoc behind enemy lines during WWII, had been fighting nearly non-stop since VE-Day through the jungles of Borneo and the deserts of Oman. Since its inception, the SAS (like many elite military units) was despised and misunderstood by regular army commanders. A small SAS sub-unit was deployed to Northern Ireland in the late 1970s in a largely political move: accused of sitting on their hands, British authorities loudly announced the arrival of the SAS to appease local Protestants. Placed under the command of regular army officers, SAS troops were used in a standard infantry role and given essentially useless tasks. In 1976, an SAS patrol was given bad coordinates by their commanding officer and wandered into the Irish Republic; the soldiers were fined for carrying weapons across the border and arrested. These soldiers, capable of operating undercover, infiltrating at night by parachute and experienced from decades of jungle and urban fighting, were essentially “lions lead by dogs”; worse, they had precious little intel handed to them by their command. 

(National Army Museum)

In 1980, however, SAS fortunes changed. The unit had spent the last eight years honing their counter-terrorism skills in response to the Munich Olympics hostage fiasco; their training paid off when the Iranian Embassy in London was seized by Iranian revolutionaries. The bloody but ultimately successful hostage-rescue mission catapulted the SAS into the limelight, giving the world a glimpse of what the unit was capable of. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in particular took note, and realized the impression the mission surely would have made on the PIRA. Shortly after the siege, the Prime Minister authorized an expanded mission for the SAS in Northern Ireland. The Special Air Service was now under the command of special operations officers who reported directly to the civilian government, circumventing the traditional chain of command.

The Sun

SAS troops began embarking on long range patrols into PIRA territory. One trooper noted that “our brief was principally mobile patrols and intelligence gathering by observation… some op[erations] go on for weeks and weeks”. SAS patrol groups would set up in heavily-camouflaged hide sights and make full use of new intel-gathering technology like long-range cameras and listening equipment. By gathering useful signals and image intelligence (SIGINT and IMINT), SAS troops gained a good idea of PIRA strength and pinpointed safe houses (such as rural farmhouses) for regular army troops to raid later on. These patrols enabled the SAS to gather intel for its own use as well as provide useful tips on PIRA operations in remote areas that the RUC and regular army could not easily reach. 

SAS in various kit during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite their best efforts, undercover SAS troopers often struggled to blend in, like the man at far left. (Osprey Publications)

By combining intel gained by their own patrols with HUMINT from the RUC and regular army, the SAS was able to launch a series of ambushes that prevented PIRA attacks. Although not all of these direct-action missions were made public, several infamous SAS actions took place in the mid 1980s, notably the Loughgall Ambush and Operation Flavius in Gibraltar. In 1987, intel indicated that the PIRA planned to attack an RUC police station in Loughgall, County Armagh. The station was secretly cleared of administrative staff and a combined SAS/RUC force lay in wait. Members of the PIRA’s elite Active Service Unit (ASU) approached the station in a stolen van; a construction digger, bucket laden with 200 pounds of explosives, followed. The defenders emerged from hiding and opened fire on the ASU members with machine gun and rifle fire, wiping out the entire force. A woman with a baby was saved by an SAS trooper who pulled her behind cover just in time, but another civilian was hit and killed by rifle fire. The Loughgall Ambush was the single worst day for the PIRA, who lost 7 fighters in a matter of minutes.

The aftermath of the Loughgall Ambush. Pictured above is the “death van” utilized by members of the PIRA’s ASU. (Irish News)

In 1988, British forces again combined intelligence from a number of sources to target an ASU cell operating in Gibraltar. Operation Flavius (as the mission was called) was ostensibly a “capture mission”, but just like the Loughgall ambush it resulted in the deaths of all present ASU members. The undercover SAS men apparently looked too much like soldiers, and their disguises failed; the ASU opened fire before they could be arrested. All three ASU members were killed (some with as many as 15 shots) and a large amount of explosives and ammunition was recovered from their vehicle.

The SAS on the move upon completion of Operation Flavius. (Pinterest)

Both the Loughgall Ambush and Operation Flavius highlighted the ruthless capabilities of the SAS. They also pointed to the existence of a shoot to kill policy rumoured to have been authorized by Prime Minister Thatcher herself. Subsequent investigations revealed that many of the PIRA men killed in SAS ambushes were executed by shots to the head. Additionally, the civilian casualties incurred in Loughgall raised questions about the wisdom of firing armour-piercing bullets in a civilian area. While these operations drew international controversy, the effect they had on PIRA morale was undeniable. When confronting regular RUC and army forces, the PIRA had previously been able to count on being taken alive if plans went awry; with the entry of the SAS into the fray, PIRA fighters now feared execution. Not only did SAS operations provide useful SIGINT and IMINT while demoralizing the PIRA — they undoubtedly saved civilian lives. 

The British Army Approach

A British army gunner in Northern Ireland during the late 1980s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Most armies tends to look at any problem as a hammer looks at a nail; the British army, fresh off of multiple hard campaigns in the Middle East, was no exception. Exhausted from fighting elsewhere, many British soldiers were loath to being deployed to Northern Ireland. Bigotry was rampant among officers and men alike, and the first entry into Ulster was described as a “Paddy drive” by many troops. Whereas operations in Aden and Oman were, generally, classic infantry campaigns against a military enemy, Northern Ireland required a much more delicate touch. Soldiers were required to distinguish combatants from civilians, protecting themselves and their fellow troops while treating the local populace with respect and civility. In response to Protestant pleas and increasing sectarian violence, the Irish Prime Minister called for British help in 1969; he received it in the form of 500 Red Devils, an elite parachute regiment who had “…[since 1942] been handling the dirtiest jobs the British Army [could] find… ” and were renowned as being one of the most aggressive units in the Commonwealth. Operation Banner — the arrival of the Red Devils — was a disaster, with troops knocking down doors, arresting civilians indiscriminately and clashing with protesters.

The initial British army approach involved an awful lot of door-kicking and CS gas-shooting. (Tate Galleries)

Matters worsened in 1972 when Red Devils opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing 14 and wounding many more. Although some soldiers claimed they had been fired on first, it is likely that the Red Devils were itching for a fight and took out their frustrations on the crowd. Later on, Operation Demetrius led to the internment of thousands of Irish civilians and produced precious little in the way of intelligence; the operation proved a decisive propaganda victory for the PIRA, who enjoyed increased public support after the incident. The regular British army, overall, was simply not equipped to fight the PIRA in the early 1970s. Help from domestic intelligence services was virtually nonexistent — in 1969, MI5 in particular “knew more about Nairobi than Belfast”. Worse, no files relating to unrest in Ireland prior to 1960 had been kept in the system.

“Free Derry”, one of the most hotly-contested neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland. Operation Motorman saw tanks rolling through this area. (Pinterest)

Because of the lack of support from intelligence services, the army began to cultivate its own intel assets. Helicopters were increasingly employed to gather image intel (IMINT) and pinpoint PIRA members from the air; CCTV camera towers were erected at key urban centres to enhance security. Overall, though, the overall British approach to policing was the real problem. Effective change came when several officers evaluated the successes they had enjoyed during previous counter-insurgencies, such as those in Borneo and Malaysia. Like any imperial power encountering a guerrilla forces, the British realized they had to “win the hearts and minds” of the populace in order to effectively counter the PIRA. Change within the army was slow, but often happened at lower levels; one platoon leader of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers noted in 1972 that 

“…patrols started to visit every house to glean information and suddenly discovered that there was a reserve of real, though private, goodwill towards the Regiment that had not been even imagined before. The trickle of information became a flood and, for the first time, the platoon really began to understand that their job consisted of more than just ‘bashing the baddies’”.

An army MP working with local law enforcement. Over time, cooperation between the various counter-insurgent forces helped the anti-PIRA effort immensely. (Pinterest)

Beginning with Operation Motorman — where 28,000 troops were deployed in order to clear “no-go” zones — British units throughout Northern Ireland began to alter their tactics, knocking on doors and developing rapports with the locals they ostensibly protected. As public opinion of the British improved, patrols that had previously been confined to armoured vehicles began walking instead, able to do so safely for the first time. The increase in dismounted patrolling enabled British forces to engage with the populace more effectively. Helmets were removed, and rifles slung; although riots and violence continued, the “occupiers” enjoyed more freedom of movement and improved physical safety. Troops were encouraged to gather “low-level” intelligence and pass it up the chain of command during after-action reviews (AARs). In the late 1970s, methods for sharing intelligence were improved and army units coordinated more effectively. Much like police walking a beat, the British were able to develop relationships with locals and collect information. Because of their enhanced military presence, the British were also able to promise that civilians who passed on information would be protected from PIRA retribution. 

The British army’s low-profile Force Research Unit (FRU). (Broken Elbow)

Intel gained from these “low-level” sources enabled the British to push the PIRA out of “no-go” areas and deny the enemy freedom of movement. Other novel tactics were developed by army units: Operation Four Square Laundry, for example, was a legitimate laundry business secretly run by the army that examined shirts from suspected PIRA safe houses and analyzed them for gun oil and other suspicious residues. One Scottish officer remarked that it was all “… very gentlemanly. We weren’t kicking in doors unless it was absolutely necessary”. Although the entry of the British army into Northern Ireland was bloody and counterproductive, the adoption of a more benevolent approach to policing (for that’s what it amounted to) proved incredibly effective. As soldiers ventured into neighbourhoods and developed relationships with civilians, the intelligence they gathered was invaluable in planning future operations, denying the PIRA freedom of movement, and gaining public support for the British mission. 

Under the watchful eyes of armed British troops, members of the Ulster Defence Association parade through Belfast, Northern Ireland in August 1972. (AP Photo)


Ultimately, the successes enjoyed by British and RUC forces during the Troubles were marred by many operational and ethical failures. The RUC often used dubious techniques while interrogating suspects, and sometimes employed murderers as informants. The SAS likely killed PIRA fighters who could have been arrested. And the regular army’s blundering entry into the conflict — Bloody Sunday in particular — was a violent disaster. While the Troubles are effectively over, some of the legitimate complaints of Irish republicans are as yet unanswered, and some of the crimes committed by British forces still unprosecuted. 

The site of a car-bombing in 2019. While the worst of the Troubles is definitively over, tensions remain in many parts of Northern Ireland. (AP News)

But from an overall strategic perspective, the British mission in Northern Ireland was a success. The PIRA and other militant groups on both sides have largely been disbanded, and the bombings have – for the most part – stopped. The Troubles were never won per se, but overall quality of life in Northern Ireland – and survival odds – have improved drastically. The RUC developed an incredibly effective intelligence network relying on informants; SAS reconnaissance patrols gathered crucial SIGINT and the unit’s operations prevented several PIRA attacks; and the regular army’s “hearts and minds” campaign helped secure urban centres and gain the trust of the local populace. Overall, as with any guerilla war, intelligence was the key that allowed British forces to gain victory over the PIRA and secure something resembling peace in Northern Ireland.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • What were – and are – some of the deep-seated reasons for the rise of the PIRA? Have these issues been dealt with, or are their still fundamental problems with the British-Northern Irish relationship?
  • What are some of the legal and ethical implications of deploying soldiers to civilian population centres?
  • Was there a precedent for British actions in Northern Ireland? Compare the Troubles to violence dating back to the 19th century.
  • Compare British actions in the Troubles to similar counter-insurgency campaigns in other parts of the former British empire.
  • How did Northern Irish civilians react to clashes between the PIRA and opposing forces? How was life affected, and how did people go about their daily lives?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Bamford, Bradley W. C. The Role and Effectiveness of Intelligence in Northern Ireland. Intelligence and National Security: 2005, 20.4.
  • Burke, Edward. Counter-Insurgency against ‘Kith and Kin’? The British Army in Northern Ireland, 1970-76. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth Studies: 2015, 43.4. 
  • Gill, Paul. Tactical Innovation and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism: 2017, 40.7. 
  • Grob-Fitzgibbon, Benjamin. Those Who Dared: A Reappraisal of Britain’s Special Air Service, 1950-80. The International History Review: 2015, 37.3. 
  • Horgan, John; Taylor, Max. The Provisional Irish Republican Army: Command and Functional Structure. Terrorism & Political Violence: 1997, 9.3. 
  • Jackson, Brian A. Counterinsurgency Intelligence in a “Long War”: The British Experience in Northern Ireland. Military Review: 2007, 87.1. 
  • Kirk-Smith, Michael; Dingley, James. Countering terrorism in Northern Ireland: the Role of Intelligence. Small Wars and Insurgencies: 2009, 20.3-4. 
  • McGovern, Mark. ‘See No Evil’: Collusion in Northern Ireland. Race & Class: January 2017, 58.3. 
  • Moran, Jon.  Evaluating Special Branch and the use of Informant Intelligence in Northern Ireland. Intelligence and National Security: 2010, 25.1. 
  • Neville, Leigh. The SAS 1983-2014. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2016. 
  • Sanders, Andrew. Northern Ireland: The Intelligence War. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations: 2011, 13, 230–248. 

This article is a revised version of an essay submitted for academic credit at the University of Toronto. Like what you’ve read? Hit the follow button in the bottom right corner for daily facts and articles!

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