When British troops hit the streets of Northern Ireland in the 1970s they were armed with two things: rifles and yellow cards.
The latter contained the formal rules of engagement (RoE) and were supposed to offer guidelines on the use of the former.
The RoE addressed three basic questions associated with the split-second decisions troops had to make when faced with an option of opening fire: can you, could you and should you? The first two questions are essentially legal dilemmas. Where would you stand in the eyes of the courts if your engaged a terrorist target.
The last question is much more related to how a soldier’s actions would be viewed in the court of public opinion. And yet, in those
early days of Operation BANNER, the subtleties and complexities of the conflict were rarely, barely, explained to those being deployed.
By the time I became an instructor with the Northern Ireland Training Advisor Team (NITAT) in the early 90s things had improved significantly.
My role – alongside PSNI Officers, legal experts and explosive technicians – was to help all major military units in preparation for ops in Northern Ireland. As much as anything we considered the political and the cultural, as well as the legal, not least the military’s powers to stop, search and arrest. We also considered tactics and procedures, dealing with the public, the appropriate reactions to intelligence reports.
Then there were the computer-based judgmental shooting exercises with group and individual discussions surrounding each shot fired.
It was thorough, deliberate, measured and worked on the principle that the people were the prize. To defeat the IRA specifically, and terrorism in general, we needed to separate the trouble makers from the populace; try and offer up an alternative to the pessimism and fear increasingly ingrained in a violence-ridden society.
This training sea change was recognition of the often overwhelming pressure young soldiers endured in those first months and years of the conflict; pressure which resulted in high-profile cases where actions were later closely scrutinised; cases such as the death of Joe McCann in 1972.
McCann was a local leader of the IRA, he was the RUC’s most wanted in Belfast and intelligence reports linked him to the
murder of a number of soldiers and the attempted murder of RUC officers and Ulster Unionist MP John Taylor.
Intelligence reports stated that McCann regularly carried a pistol as a personal protection weapon and that he was likely to use it if cornered. Any soldier at a heightened state of alert with these briefings and intelligence reports in his head and without a full understanding of the political and geographical situation would, when confronted at a checkpoint by a known terrorist, open fire. And that is exactly what happened with Joe McCann.
The decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to direct the PSNI Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) to prepare a file on McCann’s death and not any of the numerous paramilitary killings in Northern Ireland gives the impression that the justice system is unbalanced in its treatment of legacy cases and is skewed towards the actions of the state while ignoring the actions of the paramilitaries and terrorists.
Of course the Westminster government hasn’t helped.
Some 200 suspected terrorists – including Hyde Park bomber John Downey – received so-called comfort letters which effectively gave them immunity from prosecution. Although some would argue it is not immunity – but if that was the case the evidence against him would have been heard in court. Indeed, it has allowed some to openly confess to their crimes, including Kieran Conway who appeared on national television and admitted to playing a part in the murder of British soldiers, safe in the knowledge his words would have no consequence.
This is just one example of behaviour that has created a perception that in recent years Westminster ministers have desperately been trying to disentangle themselves from the past, leaving individual soldiers – who did previous ministers’ bidding – to face the fall out.
And this despite the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) less than satisfactory conduct more than forty years ago when they knowingly sent soldiers to Northern Ireland without adequate training.
I believe the MOD does have a corporate responsibility for the actions of soldiers in in the 70s and early 80s. It is important that they take responsibility and in doing so protect the soldiers they sent on Operation BANNER so ill equipped. A clear statement from the MOD today accepting corporate responsibility would end this recent fiasco before it gathers momentum.