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

A book by Kenneth Lesley-Dixon

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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 This is the first account to reveal much of this hitherto unpublished information, providing a truly unique record of surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, collusion and undercover combat.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.”

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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.

Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground (2003)

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Soon to have a major motion picture coming out, figured I ought to read it!

I’ve been a fan of the largely underground strain of heavy metal known as “black metal” for around 17 years or so, but I fell in love with it for how it sounded rather than how it was created. In the late 90’s / early 2000’s black metal had, well there’s no better term, “sold out” and started to become mainstream, so it was largely distanced from the events that happened nearly a decade previous. The wall of sound, misanthropic minimalist themes, and the theatricality were all awesome to me, so I decided to do some research on some of the original black metal bands – whoops. The sort of music I enjoyed turned out to be comprised largely of extreme right-wing murderers and arsonists that had basically formed a nihilist cult and ran around committing crimes in a naïve quest to end Norwegian Christianity.

This book focuses on the culture surrounding the black metal scene in Norway between 1990 and 1993. This is a cautionary tale on how a group of impressionable kids fell into, what can only be described as, a cult and nearly brought Norway to its knees. The first few chapters give an outline of the progression of heavy metal from bands such as Black Sabbath, Coven and Black Widow to proto-black metal bands such as Bathory, Mercyful Fate and Venom, and finally to the early Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. Then about half of the book follows the exploits of Black Metal’s most famous record label Deathlike Silence Records, and the events leading up to the death of its owner, Øystein Aarseth, and the imprisonment of his murderer Varg Vikernes. Finally, the book chronicles the aftermath of the murders and church burnings and the media circus that ensued.

I have known about this book, Lords of Chaos, for years now, but have not read it until now. Luckily (for the most part) the book has been out long enough that a second edition was put together a number of years ago to delve into some newer information about its “protagonists” like Vikernes. Unfortunately, this allows the book to go in weird directions such as Vikernes’s descent into conspiracy theory, as he discusses, at length, about UFOs and how they influenced heathen religion. Some additions are great, but others like Varg’s tales of Atlantean Wars break the flow of the chapters up a bit too much and make me feel as if I’ve accidentally started reading a Zecharia Sitchin book. The authors try to stand back and let the subjects say whatever they please, they do make an effort to not let this book be a soap box for their political belief and are not scared to step in and contradict any falsehoods that may have been spoken in the interview process.

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One of my favorite parts of this book is a series of interviews that try to culturally place “satanism” into Norwegian society, and a conclusion seems to come up that paints this Norwegian strain of anti-Christianity as some kind of naive copy of the fictitious Satanic underground that was the boogeyman of America during its “Satanic Panic” of the 1980’s and 90’s. For those unaware, America and parts of Europe, were made into constant media zoos when people started coming out of the woodwork describing things like grave desecration, satanic ritual abuse, and ritualized murder by hooded members of a worldwide cult. This hysteria has been totally debunked at this point, and zero cases of any of this have every turned out to be true, but if you watched TV or read papers during that time – our world was a battlezone between Jesus and Satan 24/7. These kids, wanting to be Anti-Christian, may have taken this cartoonish “religion” and given it life.

I had read a few reviews of this book (on Amazon) prior to purchase and was worried because the general tone of the reviews was that this was some sort of Neo-Nazi book and that the author was somehow promoting the stuff said within. On the contrary, Moynihan’s neutrality towards the ideologies portrayed in the book means that they are not censored, but they are often directly criticized or it is often implied that they have the ideology of angsty children in editorial sections. In fact, this is written a lot like a newspaper article, most comments are left to stand on their own, and the author jumps in to tie everything together. I wonder of these reviewers have largely not read the book to be honest.

As a true crime book, I will admit that this book is not perfect. It meanders a bit, means little to those that are not in some way “into” metal music, and is written in a manner that is by no means top journalism. What this book does have is a treasure-trove of information, newspaper clippings, media reports, and images from a ten year period that has been infamous for many metal fans, and until a better book comes along this is the definitive history of this genre of music and all the baggage that comes with it. This is with Varg’s UFO tales and all.


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