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

A book by Kenneth Lesley-Dixon


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 This is the first account to reveal much of this hitherto unpublished information, providing a truly unique record of surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, collusion and undercover combat.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

The Code of the Woosters


I’ve been a fan of the television show Jeeves and Wooster for quite some time, but I have never got around to actually reading any of the novels or short stories that the series was pulled from until now. I had heard they were hilarious, but for some reason, never had a chance or reason to snag one. I recognized the plot of this story as one of my favorite episodes from the aforementioned show and figured that I’d give it a try – my verdict: Wodehouse is a genius!

The story is as follows: “When Aunt Dahlia demands that Bertie Wooster help her dupe an antique dealer into selling her an 18th-century cow-creamer. Dahlia trumps Bertie’s objections by threatening to sever his standing invitation to her house for lunch, an unthinkable prospect given Bertie’s devotion to the cooking of her chef, Anatole. A web of complications grows as Bertie’s pal Gussie Fink-Nottle asks for counseling in the matter of his impending marriage to Madeline Bassett. It seems Madeline isn’t his only interest; Gussie also wants to study the effects of a full moon on the love life of newts. Added to the cast of eccentrics are Roderick Spode, leader of a fascist organization called the Saviors of Britain, who also wants that cow-creamer, and an unusual man of the cloth known as Rev. H. P. “Stinker” Pinker. As usual, butler Jeeves becomes a focal point for all the plots and ploys of these characters, and in the end only his cleverness can rescue Bertie from being arrested, lynched, and engaged by mistake!”

In pretty much any other book, Bertie Wooster would be seen as a ridiculous imbecile, but here he is somehow almost a “straight man” (well not so much compared to his Valet Jeeves) to all of the other colorful lunatics in British high society in the 1920’s-30’s. All Bertie wants to do is basically nothing – his dream is to be lazy and live off of his money. Even the prospect of traveling around the world on a cruise ship is too much effort for Bertie. This lifestyle is so ingrained in his very being that he even frequents a club for this very thing called the “Drones club”. By drone, I don’t mean our new robot overlords, I mean a male bee that does no work, living off the labor of others. His dream of a life of sloth and vice keeps getting interrupted by everyone else trying to use him as a pawn in various schemes, none of which make much sense and complicate things.

Wodehouse is amazing at coming up with Bertie’s internal monologues. You see, Bertie seems to think he’s somewhat of an intellectual himself, and some of the most hilarious moments involve him mis-quoting something that he heard Jeeves say, usually regarding a philosophical or literary term that Bertie obviously does not actually understand. One such occurrence involved Bertie trying to quote the parable of the sword of Damocles and fumbling it up something fierce.

all in all, I loved this book, and will get more Wodehouse classics.

The War Game (1965)

There is nothing more terrifying than watching a “what-if?” film about a nuclear holocaust. If done correctly, such programs can really stir fear in one’s heart and make anyone think about the ramifications of such an event to their lives. I particularly remember watching the American TV movie The Day After some years ago, and while not acted in the best manner, it was disturbing in many ways. First of all it was filmed in my home state, using buildings and town names that I’m used to, and it showed what could happen after a nuclear bomb falls. I can only imagine how messed up it would have been had they had done it as a faux documentary rather than a drama, it would most likely have ended up like BBC’s The War Gamea far superior film, and much more scary. A film like this is only as powerful as the time we live in, and today much like the sixties, we live in fear of idiots flaunting their missiles all over the world. This short black-and-white film was recently added to Netflix instant streaming, so I figured that it would be interesting, little did I know it would also be amazing.

Produced in manner similar to a documentary-styled magazine program, The War Game tells the story of a nuclear crisis in the “near future” of the 1960’s Britain. The whole mess starts when China invades South Vietnam, an act that America sees fitting to retaliate for with a decree of nuclear intentions. This idea angers all of the Communist nations leading to a small-scale nuclear war in Berlin between the two German halves and a handful of allies on either side. Eventually, it all escalates into an all-out World War with Britain getting hammered with over sixty bombs.

This film shows everything thereafter including the collapse of society, sick people, and mental traumas resulting from the bombings. What follows is a scathing look at how the director, Peter Watkins, sees Britain’s preparedness for such an event. All that “stiff upper lip” stoic nature from the blitz goes out the window in this documentary, and everyone turns into animals once things get bad. All Civil service agencies are lampooned as well as church elders, but this is not humorous satire, this is the stuff of nightmares.

One of the most unnerving segments in this film was a series of black cards with white lettering read by the narrator. Throughout the film, these cards come up to show facts, news quotes, maps, and other tidbits that really help this to look like a news show. The most poignant ones were statements from officials such as government workers, press agents, and other high up big-wigs. The card that creeped me out the most concerns the manner in which the church took notice of the bombings, coming together to issue the following odd statement:

“The church must tell the faithful that they should learn to live with, though not love, the nuclear bomb, provided that it is ‘clean’ and of a good family.”

And later:

“During a recent meeting of the Ecumenical Council at The Vatican – a bishop told the press that he was sure “our nuclear weapons will be used with wisdom.”

With how “out of reality” the church tends to be these days, I’m not too convinced that something like this wouldn’t leave the lips of a spokesman at the Vatican today! I’m not sure whether to take stuff like this as black comedy much on the same way that Dr. Strangelove handled such things, or a hard condemnation on how stupid and/or heartless people can be. With our politicians today, I think the latter is most fitting.

The written content found within isn’t the only thing that makes this film so dark. It’s also filmed in a manner reminiscent of actual news footage – meaning that they created staged building collapses and deaths, and filmed it all with a handheld camera to make it far more realistic than many movies of the time. This was Cloverfield, only forty years early. For the 1960’s, these special effects are amazing and would honestly look great if used in a modern production. This isn’t a cardboard walls Doctor Who budget, this was made to look as real as it could to strike fear. I think the only effect that was sort of “iffy” was the way in which they depicted nuclear blasts. Since they didn’t have computer generated effects back then, and stock footage is tiresome, we didn’t see any mushroom clouds. Usually somebody would be outside and the screen would flash white for a moment, leading the actor to cover their eyes and scream. While not great, this effect does its job, and doesn’t look unrealistic, just uninspiring. It was like hearing the sound effects from an off-screen battle in a Lord of the Rings movie, some of the impact is taken away if you can’t see it.

Gritty scenes such as one featuring a group policemen being forced to employ mercy killings on people so severely injured that doctors could not help them seems so out of place for any film made in the 1960’s. I can see why this film was immediately hated by higher-ups at the BBC, as it basically mocked authority on all levels. Also, if people used to call in to complain about things in Doctor Who in the 1970’s being “too scary” this would have given these same people heart attacks. I cannot stress how much this seems like a modern film in terms of tone and nature. The War Game didn’t actually get shown on any TV network until the mid-1980’s, and I’m thankful it didn’t meet the same fate as other 1960’s BBC productions –wiped and junked. It was deemed too dark, it made the British infrastructure look bad, it belittled civil servants, and it stood in the face of over-zealous national pride –things that weren’t cool forty years ago. At least now we can watch it, and enjoy it without any censorship involved.

Another scene that really struck me, on a deja vu level, was one that was used much later for a plotline in a David Tennant era Doctor Who episode called Turn Left. In The War Game, threats of an imminent nuclear strike force the evacuation of millions of people to the country-side. The streets run foul with protests and uncertainty as many households were forced to take in and feed as many as eight guests for the duration of the events. People caught on camera include many that act very selfish; this includes people trying to hoard resources and even bigots. One woman interviewed remarked that she hoped her new lodgers “weren’t colored” as was the norm back in the sixties.

The aforementioned Doctor Who version of this happened in a similar manner. In Turn Left, the Earth fell to utter ruin when the titular character died in an alternate reality. His companion at the time, Donna as played by Catherine Tate, was forced to board with other people when London is totally destroyed in a nuclear accident. The racial sentiment is still jarring now as it was in the sixties, and it really shows that accidents and other catastrophes bring out the worst in people. I’m really surprised that there haven’t been a lot of people that have picked up on this connection between the two shows accidental or intended– then again this movie may be pretty obscure due to its age and its banned status.

If you want to see a great disaster movie that doesn’t resort to over-the-top special effects in lieu of drama, please check this out. For a film that I assumed would be schlocky 1960’s faire, The War Game was awesome. This movie is so dark, violent, pessimistic, and edgy, that one would assume that it came from the brain of a modern director. Since it was shelved so long ago, I feel that many have not seen a true speculative fiction classic. I know this kind of film is not for everyone, it’s sort of depressing, and makes you feel bad. But that shouldn’t stand in the way of the punch in the gut you get watching it.

Here is an excerpt from the film: