Last night’s Panorama investigation on the Military Reaction Force (MRF) was an important and revelatory insight into a little-known facet of the British ‘dirty war’ in Northern Ireland. A secret unit that ‘did not exist on paper’, the MRF carried out undercover surveillance and extra-judicial executions of IRA members, mostly in West Belfast, in the early 70s before it was disbanded in 1973.
Such activities were not a revelation in themselves. Various army units did the same kind of work, such as the Force Research Unit (FRU), but this was the first time the MRF’s existence was publicly admitted. Presenter John Ware interviewed three of its members on camera, who coolly described how they roamed the streets of Belfast in unmarked cars, ‘taking out’ IRA members or ‘shooters’.
Ware’s interviewees were clearly hard, cold men, who years later had no regrets about having killed dozens of IRA ‘terrorists’, as they showed off their weapons with a faintly boyish twinkle in the eye. Though one of them defined ‘terrorists’ as ‘baby-killers’, their definition was clearly wide-ranging enough to include not just IRA ‘shooters’ and bombers, but Republicans manning barricades in Catholic areas that were often manned by ordinary Catholics to protect their inhabitants from sectarian attacks.
The soldiers admitted to having regularly ‘blasted’ these barricades with machine-gun fire, regardless of whether the people they shot at were carrying weapons. They also made it clear that were not interested in arresting IRA shooters, even when they had the opportunity to do so.
Panorama also established that the MRF killed at least 12 civilians, who they wrongly suspected of being IRA. None of the soldiers showed much concern about deaths that they clearly regarded as ‘collateral damage’. Watching these men talk about their work as the British state’s executioners, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that they regarded anyone in a particular Catholic area as a potential IRA sympathiser and therefore a worthy target.
Their actions also coincided with a similar campaign of ‘counter-terror’ by loyalist death squads who also patrolled the streets and frequently killed any Catholic they encountered, according to the principle ‘ any taig (Catholic) will do. The Ulster Defense Association’s (UDA) magazine Combat once justified such actions on the grounds that
‘ There is only one way to control an area or ghetto that harbours terrorists and insurgents and that is to reduce its population to fear by inflicting on them all the horror of terrorist warfare.’
British state involvement in loyalist death squad killings has never been fully clarified or investigated, despite occasional glimpses into such connections through the use of informers/double agents such as the UDA information chief Brian Nelson. But the MRF veterans also justified their activities on the grounds that they were forced to become ‘like the terrorists’ in order to defeat them.
The programme did really clarify whether the unit was ordered to kill its targets even when it could have arrested them, or whether its members simply took these decisions themselves.
But the MRF belongs to a well-established tradition of counterinsurgency or ‘counter-terrorist’ warfare, in which the state creates paramilitary groups or ‘death squads’ to kill ‘terrorists’ and ‘sympathizers’ whose existence it does not publicly acknowledge, that can be traced back to Vietnam and the Algerian War of Independence and the Latin American ‘national security states’ of the 1970s and 80s.
One of Ware’s interviewees responded indignantly to the suggestion that his unit functioned as a death squad, and insisted that its actions had ‘saved innocent lives’ – a response that did not address the civilians that the MRF killed.
One of the soldiers posed the question ‘ what would you have done’ as though the unit had little choice to do what it did. There is another retrospective interpretation that can also be placed on its activities: that the MRF was itself an instrument of terror and violence that may have intensified the conflict rather than reduced it, by bringing more recruits into the IRA’s ranks.
Given that the Troubles continued for more than two decades after the unit was disbanded, the MRF’s attempts to ‘out-terrorize the terrorists’ clearly failed, and despite the protestations of its members, it seems even clearer with hindsight than it was at the time, that complex conflicts that are rooted in politics and history, no matter how brutal, cannot be resolved by allowing soldiers to act as judges and executioners.