Uncivil War: The British Army and the Troubles, 1966-1975

  • By Huw Bennett
  • Cambridge University Press
  • 382 pp.
  • Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski
  • January 10, 2024

Reassessing a painfully fraught period in the midcentury U.K.

Uncivil War: The British Army and the Troubles, 1966-1975

A fresh appraisal of British military strategy in Northern Ireland in the early years of “the Troubles” illuminates a long-neglected aspect of the conflict in historian Huw Bennett’s compelling new study, Uncivil War.

Beginning in the late 1960s and concluding with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the conflict was a complex affair that involved clashes between religious affiliations and ethno-nationalists seeking a united republic. For the layman, “republicans” referred to the majority-Catholic population outside of Protestant Ulster, a province that wished to remain part of the United Kingdom (“loyalists”). In this book, Bennett focuses on the British Army’s operations in Northern Ireland from 1966-1975, a time period he says has received “less scholarly attention than one might expect.”

Northern Irish politics during this time were chaotic, as the Ulster government was majority Protestant and discriminatory toward the minority-Catholic population. As sectarian tensions mounted, the British Army was sent to Northern Ireland to prevent violence between the factions, but as Bennett’s analysis of previously unavailable primary sources reveals, “military repression towards Catholics followed amidst tolerance of Protestant militancy.”

Indeed, this is a recurring refrain throughout Uncivil War, as the British Army’s undeniable predilection for “placat[ing] Protestant outrage” at the expense of Catholics sullied the image of an “impartial” military and inadvertently helped the recruiting efforts of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In this, Bennett asserts the British strategy failed at its most basic level:

“In Northern Ireland in 1969 the epitome of miliary sense should have been protecting people who might otherwise seek protection from paramilitaries.”  

Deploying to Northern Ireland to ostensibly keep the peace and squash the potential of a localized civil war spreading to England proper was a strategy “paradoxical in its effects,” Bennett claims, because it avoided “all-out” civil war across the British Isles but “at the cost of engraining a bitter low-level conflict for decades.”

Bennett painstakingly outlines the early days of mounting violence against British forces (and their responses to it) in Northern Ireland with a mindful eye on the British Army’s use of measures “that owed much to colonial precedent,” such as enforced curfews, internment, and “deep interrogation.”

Readers unfamiliar with the Troubles may be surprised to learn the latter entailed grabbing people off the street and putting them through five techniques (restricted diet, sleep deprivation, stress positions, exposure to white noise, and hooding) to “wear down subjects prior to questioning.” Bennett argues the internments and deep interrogations were part of a wider offensive against the IRA and, more chillingly, aimed to “intimidate the Catholic population as a whole.”

His most powerful chapter is “The Road to Bloody Sunday,” in which his analysis of that event and the British government’s reaction to it reveals a wound still quite raw on both sides. On Sunday, January 30, 1972, British Army forces shot dead 13 unarmed Irish Catholic anti-internment protesters. Bennett says in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the British government “denigrated the victims and instigated a whitewash inquiry.”

It would take another 38 years before the government acknowledged that British soldiers murdered those protesters, “the greatest loss of life caused by the army at home since Peterloo in 1819.” Bennett adds that “many British people still struggle to believe their soldiers killed innocent civilians.”

The author doesn’t shy away from the more provocative aspects of the British response to Northern Ireland, and to the Irish in general. Many in the military and government held racist views toward the Irish (yes, they are considered a race). In just one example, he cites a military source who explained:

“To the average British soldier, [the Northern Irish] were no different to the Chinese in Hong Kong, or the Arabs in Aden, or the Malays in Singapore. They were wogs, they were not British people.”

Intriguingly, Bennett ascribes this mindset to a possible “residual colonialism” in the British military, one that persists in the “deeply pessimistic beliefs about what the Irish might do to each other without supervision.”

Uncivil War is a bold and dense interpretation of a difficult and multilayered subject, and as such, is not for the neophyte. Readers already well-versed in the Troubles will fare better than someone just starting their education on the topic. Including 95 pages of notes and a 27-page bibliography, this work is scholarship at its most thorough (and most rewarding) as it fills in an understudied aspect of this most “troublesome” time. I highly recommend it.

Peggy Kurkowski is a professional copywriter for a higher-education IT nonprofit association by day and major history nerd at night. She writes for multiple book review publications, including Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BookBrowse Review, Historical Novels Review, Open Letters Review, Shelf Awareness, and the Independent. She hosts her own YouTube channel, “The History Shelf,” where she features and reviews history books (new and old), as well as a variety of fiction. She lives in Colorado with her partner (quite possibly the funniest Irish woman alive) and four adorable, ridiculous dogs.

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