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 This is the first account to reveal much of this hitherto unpublished information, providing a truly unique record of surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, collusion and undercover combat.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

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

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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.