The Republic of Ireland’s government protested the 1969 dispatch of British troops to the northern province. At the time Dublin had not surrendered its constitutional claim to those counties separated from the South by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. The military units sought to restore order and protect the innocent from violence as Protestant “loyalists” attacked Catholic “republicans” and the latter returned the favor, both often neglecting to discriminate between guiltless and parties partaking in the killing, maiming, beating, coercion, and other forms of aggression. While “The Troubles” might seem a struggle involving three broad categories of opponents to the casual observer – Catholic insurgents, Protestant militias, and government security forces – the situation was inevitably far more complex, the number of willing and involuntary participants much greater. Groups were often internally fractured with relations between fragments changing as personalities and political conditions varied over time, a situation not dissimilar to that confronted by counterinsurgents in the Philippines.5 The British Army initially took a neutral stance between the IRA (used here to encompass the one or more factions using the description in some form at any given time) and other Catholic groups on one side and various Protestant organizations on the other. It is often joked that Britain’s army is more akin to a collection of tribes than a proper army thanks to the regiments and corps that are its parts, organizations with unique customs, traditions, uniforms, and behaviors that to the uninitiated range from the quaint to the bizarre. Varied though its components might be and despite the occasional stumble, the army has largely maintained consistency in the ends sought and means employed in Northern Ireland. Laws and political guidance changed, but soldiers and police were ever constrained to operate within the bounds of legal dictates, occasional breaches notwithstanding. The same was not true of the factions they attempted to keep from each other’s throats. Republican and loyalist elements included sectarian politicians, criminal masterminds, separatists, nationalists, thugs, drug traffickers, and virtually every other flavor of unsavory character with several of those traits often wrapped into a single personality. The soldier patrolling Northern Ireland after his 1969 arrival soon found himself ridiculed by the very people he had come to protect. It was on occasion due to an isolated act of ill discipline by a member of the armed forces. More often it was the result of deliberate efforts by the leaders in one or another faction to turn elements of the population against the military, a population sometimes unrecognizable as British to those in uniform. Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast tended to remain relatively lawabiding in the early months of British Army presence. The city of Derry (or Londonderry, depending on one’s political leanings) was another story. One or more of the IRA’s several factions sent armed men sporting black balaclavas to purportedly protect the city’s majority Catholic population.6

Early army missteps came when soldiers sometimes applied force exceeding what locals and logic deemed appropriate. At the same time, IRA groups had little desire to see the British Tommy greeted as peacemaker, security provider, and thus a replacement for themselves. Their leaders found many of the city’s Catholics receptive to efforts casting soldiers and anyone cooperating with them as deserving victims of insurgent retribution. Like Russian counterinsurgent operations and most of those in Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland was an in-house effort: the sovereign government in London or its representatives in the province provided the only security forces directly involved. Again, as in both Sri Lanka and Chechnya, Ireland’s diaspora was vital to sustaining the insurgent cause. Americans of Irish ancestry in the U.S. northeast in particular provided millions in dollars, arms, ammunition, and other forms of support without which the IRA might never have risen above nuisance level. So too did the predominantly Catholic citizenry of the Irish Republic help the insurgents, though more often in the form of refuge than riches. British military leaders strictly constrained their tactics, denying use of the artillery, airpower, or heavy weaponry such as tank guns employed freely by the militaries of Sri Lanka and Russia with dire consequences for civilians. It would take decades to show, but such restraint proved key in influencing the migration of Catholic popular support away from violent insurgent groups. That this restraint did not necessarily translate into support for the British government (or the Northern Ireland parliament in Stormont) demonstrates that counterinsurgency is not a zero sum game.7 Movement along the continuum of relative interests need not signal a shift in allegiance. Lessening of support for adversary or ally does not mean it accrues to another; the response can instead reflect an effort to withdraw altogether by seeking refuge in the status of “neutral.” Amongst the other misguided perceptions receiving attention here, Northern Ireland’s insurgency demonstrates the inadvisability of considering an entire population as center of gravity. Social divisions in the province made clear the futility of treating province residents as homogeneous. Support of select individuals and groups, however, might be key to insurgent or counterinsurgent progress. It was the patient addressing of key segments of the province’s population that would underlie the latter’s progress, a state of affairs that lends further credence to casting aside claims of “COIN is dead” given British (sometimes belatedly applied) practices in keeping with such currently accepted counterinsurgency tenets as minimizing noncombatant casualties, seeking to address underlying grievances, and aiding in establishing legitimate indigenous government. The revised belief referencing the potential dangers associated with militias pertains here. Both Protestant and Catholic militias were troublesome, “troublesome” perhaps being too much akin to British understatement. It is difficult to conceive of insurgency in Ireland’s north in the absence of such groups.