REVIEW: Northern Ireland: The Troubles: From The Provos to The Det, 1968–1998

A book by Kenneth Lesley-Dixon

Cover

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

Being a member of the Irish Diaspora, I try to occasionally learn something about my ancestral homeland’s history when I can. We’re talking usually ancient history, so I felt that I was severely lacking in my knowledge of more recent events. Its no secret that American schools usually don’t go over details about world events of recent memory, and corporate news largely ignores anything that is not politics anymore. So unless I decide that Cranberries and U2 song lyrics will be my only window into “The Troubles”, I figured a book would be in order! That’s why I was excited for my opportunity to read Northern Ireland: The Troubles: From The Provos to The Det, 1968–1998. This appears to be the newest book in a series called History of Terror including books on Islamic State and Zulu Guerilla attacks.

It is, of course, no secret that undercover Special Forces and intelligence agencies operated in Northern Ireland and the Republic throughout the ‘troubles’, from 1969 to 2001 and beyond. What is less well known is how these units were recruited, how they operated, what their mandate was and what they actually did. This is the first account to reveal much of this hitherto unpublished information, providing a truly unique record of surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, collusion and undercover combat. An astonishing number of agencies were active to combat the IRA murder squads (‘the Provos’), among others the Military Reaction Force (MRF) and the Special Reconnaissance Unit, also known as the 14 Field Security and Intelligence Company (‘The Det’), as well as MI5, Special Branch, the RUC, the UDR and the Force Research Unit (FRU), later the Joint Support Group (JSG)). It deals with still contentious and challenging issues as shoot-to-kill, murder squads, the Disappeared, and collusion with loyalists. It examines the findings of the Stevens, Cassel and De Silva reports and looks at operations Loughgall, Andersonstown, Gibraltar and others.

Book description.

I will confess, my knowledge of “The Troubles”, prior to this book, boiled down to my assumption that the whole thing was a guerilla war between the IRA and the UK military, not realizing there were dozens of various paramilitary groups acting in their own self-interests, some nationalist, some loyalist, others seemingly agents of chaos, ever splintering into more groups and in-fighting the entire time. trying to sift through all of the allegiances, and goals for these various groups was hard, but I feel like I learned a lot more from it.

I will say that, perhaps, one flaw of the book is that it dumps a ton of information on you all at once assuming you have a passing knowledge of the topic – Since I was remedial at best, a lot of the beginning of the book just washed over me. I understand that I, an American far distanced from The Troubles, isn’t likely the author’s target audience, but maybe a more “training wheels” introduction would be in order if a second edition were to ever be made. Once the book took a step away from statistics and went more into a narrative history of the events, I was sold on it. Later sections went over prominent players in each “side” of the conflict, their origins, goals, and what sort of terror they caused. The information is in depth, and conveys the terror that everyone had to deal with for so long.

“Republicans and Nationalists were matched in their paramilitary activity during the troubles by loyalists intent on championing Unionism, protecting Protestant communities, and ruthlessly retaliating against Republican violence.”

Book quote

Most-jarring for me, but honestly not a big surprise, was the revelation that the British Military had a hand in basically supporting some of the loyalist murder squads. I mean, sure, everyone could assume that the old saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, but it goes a bit far when that “friend” is killing civilians. This was revealed via documents that were recently de-classified that the author discussed in the book.

Care is made, by the author, to not take a side for the most part, any of the various paramilitary “murder squads” are all painted as ruthless and somewhat evil in their doings. I appreciated this, as most books on terrorism, and counter-insurgency that I’ve read are very one-sided and downplay the reasons behind the behavior. I wasn’t expecting a pro-Britain book or anything, but the honesty was refreshing.

I enjoyed this book a lot, It’s very dense with information and covers a lot of ground. I think its written a bit too much like a government analytical report meant to debrief a law enforcement agent or something, but it wasn’t hard to read or anything – its just VERY heavily with numbers and statistics. Having any prior knowledge of the events is also a plus. This is definitely a series that I plan to check out more of, I feel like I learned quite a bit.

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