From Topping, who served there with the British Army during the Troubles
It was sobering listening to Simon Byrne, a bluff Northerner and current chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), this morning on the radio opining on the practicalities of policing a hard border should it be required. He feared a return to a paramilitary style of policing and how, with his 7,000 policemen, it would be impossible to fulfil such a remit.
At the height of Op Banner, the British military operation in Northern Ireland that ran from 1969 to 2007, there were around 40,000 forces throughout the Province consisting of 20,000 soldiers from the British army (plus personnel from other arms), 13,500 policemen from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now the PSNI), and 7,500 soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). Tasks included supporting the police as they performed their duties as well as more specialist operations. This was at a time when the British army was 150,000 strong and, with the notable exception of the campaign to reclaim the Falkland Islands in 1982, and until Gulf War I in 1991, there were no other ongoing military engagements.
The British army is now 80,000 strong, the PSNI numbers 7,000, and the UDR is no more. Something like 70% of the army has never been on operations (in a combat situation as opposed to practising for one).
Supposing there were the political will (a huge if: my suspicion is there wouldn’t be), Her Majesty’s Forces would be unable to replicate Op Banner as the numbers are simply not there. At roughly half the strength and with many other commitments, the same and necessary level of manning would not be possible.
If, as Simon Byrne fears, we are about to return to paramilitary style policing in Northern Ireland then there would also need to be some tactical re-education. The British army went into the Middle East loudly proclaiming the superiority of its fighting forces and tactics based upon its Northern Ireland experiences. This supposed superiority was quickly shown to be illusory as the mode of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan little resembled the intelligence-led operations and peculiarities of patrolling a divided domestic community, where a typical outing comprised two police constables walking down the street, seemingly without a care in the world save for checking on tax discs, with typically 12 soldiers on satellite patrol in support plus air cover plus other units available.
Following two decades of essentially war fighting in hot climes there would need to be a return to a bygone and one had hoped obsolete era for the British army with a further tactical change to be able to undertake a domestic counter insurgency campaign of the type that might emerge once more in the six counties. A campaign that would also of course be conducted under the glare and scrutiny of thousands of mobile phones and perhaps in an even more antagonistic environment than last time.
Put up a border, some people cry; that will bring the Republic back to the negotiating table, they say. But aside from the many administrative, legal, and political considerations of such a strategy, its advocates ignore, perhaps deliberately perhaps through ignorance, its many and severe practical challenges.