In the 1970s, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) conducted an armed paramilitary campaign aimed at ending British rule in Northern Ireland. In 1972, one of the most violent years of the Troubles, the IRA planted nearly 1,800 bombs, an average of five a day. More than 10,000 shootings also took place in Northern Ireland during that year.
More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict and sporadic violence still breaks out today. The Troubles involved both Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries along with the United Kingdom and Irish security forces. The IRA argued that the campaign was not directed against the Protestant/Unionist community per se. It claimed that its real target was the security forces. However, many Unionists believe that the IRA’s campaign was sectarian and there were many incidents where Protestant civilians were clearly targeted.
The waters were muddied recently when details emerged of a clandestine group of 40 hand-picked British soldiers who killed unarmed civilians during undercover operations in Belfast. Records of the 18-month operation by the Military Reaction Force (MRF) were destroyed and, until this month’s BBC Panorama programme, little was known about how the unit operated or how many people they killed. They were disbanded in 1973 because there was “no provision for detailed command and control”. Former MRF members now admit disguising themselves as road sweepers, dustmen and “meth addicts” and patrolling Belfast, tracking down suspected IRA members. Surveillance was just part of their remit. They were also expected “to draw out the IRA and to minimise their activities.” An ex-soldier, interviewed on the Panorama programme, said: “If they needed shooting, they’d be shot.” They made the assumption their targets were armed, even if no gun was visible, and killed them in breach of the Yellow Card (a list of rules of engagement issued to British troops during the Troubles). Panorama identified 10 unarmed civilians killed in cold blood by the MRF.
The former MRF members said they believed their actions had ultimately helped bring about the IRA’s decision to lay down arms and that the unit had therefore saved the lives of many innocent people. But, clearly, that is a highly contentious assertion, given that relatives of the victims would have assumed the IRA was responsible. It is very likely that the protestant/unionist/loyalist communities responded with a campaign of reprisals. It’s certainly true that a “tit for tat” cycle of sectarian killings escalated during the following months and years.