When the IRA hit us they fled into the Republic. The border was a stone’s throw away and we could not cross it. On the other side the police or military were rarely out.  Dublin did not see the IRA as I did. I was clueless about the politics of it all. It was simple stuff in my eyes; Provos were terrorists and their killings were murders. 

In 2007, I worked on police-building programmes in Anbar province, Iraq, the heartland of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and then in 2009, Helmand province, Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland.   A fundamental ideology legitimising murder, with the police top of the list, was not unique to the IRA. Helmand and Anbar were south Armagh on a bigger scale. Tribal allegiances were exploited with great effect.  Insurgency thrives in a political wasteland.  For people like me, sadly, it was very familiar.  

In all three countries the military fought an insurgency with the aim of stabilising the environment to a point where local police could take over.  In Northern Ireland this took seven years.  Fourteen years after US-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq this has still to happen. With so many relevant parallels, how has this been so difficult to achieve? I am not saying the police model at the centre of Northern Ireland’s security response is perfect, but it is a lot better than anything else that has been used or proposed. 

Winning the intelligence war beat the IRA, leaving Sinn Féin intact to join a devolved government they had tried to destroy.  Half the IRA was in prison and most of the rest were fugitives living in the Irish Republic.  By the early 1990s, the IRA had run out of road.  They needed a face-saving way out, which they got.  Effective security in tandem with politics brought about the peace.  The IRA wanted their people out of prison and amnesties for their on-the-runs.  This is also the type of ending in store for the Taliban and Islamic State, eventually.  Politically, it is the wise thing to do but hard to stomach for those who have been on the receiving end.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, police from mostly the US and Europe advised military commanders. None I met had policed a conflict, and many were uninterested in what this looked like.  As far as they were concerned, they had been hired for their police knowledge and whether that was based on policing Boston, Birmingham or Berlin was beside the point.   They knew best practice, the latest guidelines and modern techniques. This is why they were hired.  They were the experts.  

In one place I worked, Haditha, Iraq, most of the Iraqi police officers had been wiped out in one incident for want of basic guidance, none of which appears in modern guidelines.  To anyone from my background, what was needed was obvious. Iraqis and Afghans, like all police officers, love stories. They want to know what you did with a situation they now face.  If you have never walked in their shoes, how do you do this?  For the US and UK military this is easy; they have extensive experience in fighting small wars. But this is not the case for police officers.   

A police organisation in a conflict must get ahead of the threat if it is to defeat it.  Reacting is losing.  Modern police services are obese bureaucracies unfit for this purpose. Political correctness has paralysed police-building efforts.   Police officers cannot afford to police with the fear of being sued, which is what most of this bureaucracy is for.  Had the police force of which I was a member been given the guidance Iraqis and Afghans received, the Troubles would still be raging.  

In 1982, I joined a police force in a time of conflict and in 2014 left a police service in a time of peace. They are remarkably different organisations. Most of my career was in Special Branch, an intelligence agency despised by a sectarian IRA, the Islamic State of its day.  To them, I was part of the problem and a reason why they took up arms. Currently, some of the IRA men I helped to put behind bars are in politics. The Belfast Agreement gave them a platform to promote their views.  The result has been a tsunami of criticism about the police force they hated. They and political opportunists wishing to market the politics of the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ on the world stage have suppressed the security dimension as an essential ingredient.  The policing ‘lessons’ never reached places like Iraq and Afghanistan in any significant shape. At what cost to the lives of officers in both countries we will never know.

In an irregular conflict a tough police force can bridge the gap between war and peace to consolidate hard won military gains. This happened in Northern Ireland. The rule of law approach endured.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, the police issue was an after-thought.  All attention was on the military.  Commercial companies filled the void and made enormous profits.  Governments contracted ‘police experts’ to deliver police-building programmes.  It all became very confused and inept. 

In writing this book, the ultimate aim is to inform. The intelligence war waged against the IRA and managed by Special Branch is the most widely misunderstood aspect of the Northern Ireland conflict.  These pages put the record straight.  The best counter-terrorism weapon from the Troubles has been left on the shelf.