Book Review: Counterinsurgency and collusion on Northern Ireland, by Mark McGovern

Counterinsurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland by Mark McGovern, (Pluto Press, 2019)

Review by Tom Griffin

In January 2020, Boris Johnson’s government committed to dealing with Northern Ireland legacy issues as part of a wide-ranging agreement to restore devolved government at Stormont. It’s a commitment who sits uneasily alongside the appointment of a veterans’ minister who has campaigned against legacy prosecutions of British soldiers.

Wherever the official process ends up, there is now a critical mass of evidence in relations to key aspects of the British Army’s legacy in Northern Ireland, one which demonstrates the long-contested reality of collusion between soldiers and paramilitaries.

Key works include Margaret Urwin’s A State in Denial, Anne Cadwallader’ Lethal Allies, and Ciarán Mac Airt’s The McGurk’s Bar Bombing.

Mark McGovern’s new study is valuable in part as a summation and overview of this earlier work, but it also makes important original contributions.

Among these is his use of British Army counterinsurgency doctrine as a tool for understanding why collusion happened. He traces this tradition to the early twentieth century, and to two key army theorists who both had Irish backgrounds.

These were Major General Sir Charles Callwell, born in London to a county Antrim family, who served in the Boer War and the First World War, and the Donegal-born Major General Sir Charles Gwynn, who served in West Africa, Sudan and also in the First World War.

Gwynn’s family had significant Irish nationalist connections, but Callwell was close to Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, something McGovern interprets in light of Wilson’s collusion with the UVF during the Home Rule Crisis of 1914 and his later career as a unionist MP.

Callwell and Gwynn’s ideas not only shaped Britain’s colonial wars but received renewed interest in the twenty-first century with the advent of the War on Terror.

The counterinsurgency tradition returned to Ireland at the outset of the Troubles with a generation of officers who had experience of the small wars at the end of empire. The most notorious of these was Frank Kitson, who had already published on counterinsurgency when he was appointed commander of 39 Brigade in Belfast in 1970.

McGovern challenges previous arguments that the tactics advocated in Kitson’s writings, such as the use of locally recruited ‘counter-gangs’, were never implemented in Northern Ireland, highlighting Kitson’s role in the formation of the Military Reaction Force, which deployed plain-clothes patrols and recruited paramilitary double agents.

Some of McGovern’s most valuable research focuses on the latter part of the Troubles. Although challenging claims that counterinsurgency contributed to the peace process, he sees an increase in loyalist attacks on Sinn Féin members as an element of ‘endgame’ politics. His discussion of individual cases draws on some remarkable instances in which high-level surveillance aimed at republicans stood by while targets were attacked by loyalists.

Such cases point once again to the significance of agent-running, on which subject McGovern makes good critical use of the De Silva report on the murder of Pat Finucane, which outlined in detail the record of official refusal to provide agent-runners with proper guidelines. This mode of turning a blind eye is itself part of a record of collusion. 

McGovern has provided a ground-breaking critical account of that record over the Troubles as a whole. His exploitation of the literature of counterinsurgency to understand official thinking is a technique that could usefully applied to related disciplines like the MI6 approach to covert action, recently examined by Rory Cormac, and the MI5 tradition of domestic counter-subversion.