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Friday 22 September 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# lessons unlearned
Northern Ireland (and the PSNI) is all over the Chilcot Report - here's why
The British Army used the Northern Irish Troubles as its key reference point for dealing with the Iraq conflict.

Chilcot Iraq inquiry Jeff J Mitchell Sir John Chilcot presenting his inquiry into the Iraq War yesterday Jeff J Mitchell

TODAY, BRITAIN IS reeling in the fallout from the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war.

The enormous, 2.6 million word document is quite damning in its assessment of Britain’s reasoning and decision-making in the context of the route to the war and its aftermath, and the consequences of the report are likely to be felt for years to come, not least by former UK prime minister Tony Blair.

There is another significant connection contained in the Inquiry Report however – that between Northern Ireland and the conflict.

In documenting the events that led to war with Saddam Hussein in January 2003, and throughout the conflict itself until British troops were finally removed from Iraq in July 2009, the key phrase ‘Northern Ireland’ is to be found repeatedly in Sir John Chilcot’s mammoth report, most especially when it comes to the provision of military equipment during and after the conflict.

There are two main reasons for this:

  • The ongoing conflict with dissident forces in Northern Ireland was, in many ways, the only point of reference for British forces regarding the kind of guerrilla warfare they were to face in Iraq
  • The use of British military vehicles and personnel from Northern Ireland, and a number of PSNI officers, in Iraq throughout the conflict both for advisory and other military purposes


From the beginning, Blair’s Labour government was aware that supporting an invasion of Iraq was likely to put great strain on the UK’s military resources, not least because the British army was already engaged in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.

Likewise, from the beginning a touchstone for the UK’s military approach in Iraq was the ongoing dealings it had with dissidents in Northern Ireland.

British Forces in Iraq. PA Archive / Press Association Images A soldier from the Parachute Regiment 1st Battalion of the British Army inspecting an Iraqi army mortar position hidden in fields near Basra in April 2003 PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Though the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had effectively begun the process for ending the cycle of sectarian violence in the north, and had put in place the framework for the establishment of the PSNI in 2001, violent incidents in Northern Ireland were still far from eradicated by the time of the Iraq invasion of 2003.

In 2002 and 2003, at least 22 people lost their lives due to the ongoing sectarian conflict, a great reduction on the worst years of the Troubles, but enough to signify that the threat of violence was still very much alive.

From that point of view, the ongoing Northern Irish situation was understandably the only real reference point for the British Army in advance of the invasion (America’s relative point of reference for such a large-scale invasion being the Vietnam War).

However, it seems that the UK’s approach to the Iraq conflict was to ape the strategies used in Northern Ireland, rather than to learn from them.

“The irony is that the British had the experience of Northern Ireland and didn’t learn from it,” security expert Tom Clonan says.

It’s something that the Americans did actually pay attention to, and redefined their approach to counterinsurgency from aggression to understanding, but from the UK’s point of view, Iraq was a war that was carried out on the cheap.


Speaking before the Chilcot inquiry in January 2010, former UK prime minister Tony Blair specifically used the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland as a proxy for what the British Army were to face in Iraq. However, he concluded that the IRA’s motivations were understandable (if not condonable), but those of the Iraqi insurgents were not:

“For those of us who dealt with terrorism from the IRA, and, incidentally, I don’t want to minimise the impact of that terrorism; each act of terrorism is wicked and wrong and to be deplored,” he said.

But the terrorism that an organisation like the IRA were engaged in was terrorism directed towards a political purpose, maybe unjustified, but it was within a certain framework that you could understand.

Chilcot Iraq inquiry PA Tony Blair pictured at a press conference in London following the publishing of the Chilcot Report PA

“The British didn’t look after their troops in Iraq at all,” says Clonan.

In Northern Ireland they didn’t travel in soft-skinned vehicles, because they had learned from their experience there, and their vulnerability to IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Yet in Iraq 75% of the British Army’s casualties came from such devices being used on personnel carriers.
Iraq was a risky military endeavour to begin with. But when they got there they didn’t learn any of the lessons of Northern Ireland. They were dealing with experts in high explosives, in engineering, and they simply didn’t enjoy the type of force protection that they should have done.

The Chilcot inquiry found that a Snatch Land Rover, which was designed for operations in Northern Ireland but by 2003 was deemed obsolete, was suggested for use in Iraq. It was eventually used even though “protection levels afforded by Snatch may not meet the requirement to counter the local threat”.

This was due to the pressure on resources. General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff (CGS) from February 2003 to August 2006, told the inquiry:

Snatch Land Rovers were deployed to Iraq because they were available or could be made available as we drew down from Northern Ireland, and without them it would have been completely soft‑skinned Land Rovers. That’s where the state of the equipment inventory was at that point.

Not surprisingly, the section of the Chilcot Report that deals most significantly with Northern Ireland is the volume dealing with the provision of military equipment both for the invasion itself and its aftermath.

On 8 February 2004, Major General Andrew Figgures, the Senior British Military Representative in Iraq, reported an attack on one of the Northern Irish Snatch vehicles deployed to Baghdad: “Although we were fortunate in this case it raises a number of wider issues of the application of our national doctrine and equipment in this theatre.

The Snatch vehicle undoubtedly saved the lives of the crew by absorbing the majority of the blast… I doubt, however, that it would have withstood the effects of a [redacted] which is the usual weapon of choice.


Chilcot found that there “was no coherent US/UK strategy for Security Sector Reform (SSR)” between 2003 and 2009, and that “in the absence of any clear strategy for what type of force was needed” in Iraq, emphasis was to be placed on recruiting UK police officers to “niche” roles in the conflict in which they could use their experience in guiding local police in how they should be dealing with the insurgents.

The PSNI was no exception from this point of view. In September 2003, London Met Police Deputy Chief Constable Douglas Brand wrote to the UK’s Foreign Office expressing intense frustration that PSNI officers had yet to be dispatched to his command in Iraq’s capital Baghdad.

Chilcot Iraq inquiry Dan Kitwood Volumes of the Chilcot Inquiry Report awaiting distribution in Westminster yesterday Dan Kitwood

“I don’t mind where they come from as long as they get here ASAP,” Brand wrote.  ”I made my original request… six weeks ago… If we are only just thinking about approaching the PSNI it may be weeks or months before the officers are able to travel and we would lose all credibility with the American military… To remind you, this was our idea… I urge you to act swiftly and not delay any longer.”


Meanwhile, the British defence ministry seemed at a loss as to why the insurgents being seen in Iraq were adapting to its army’s tactics so much more quickly than the Provisional IRA did. On 18 November 2003, David Williams of the Ministry of Defence wrote to a colleague, John Dodds, explaining :”The most serious threat facing UK personnel in Iraq is that from radio‑controlled IEDs. It took PIRA some years to develop RCIEDs and associated tactics successfully.

By contrast, FRL (Former Regime Loyalists) forces, already well equipped and experienced, were able to mount attacks of similar technical sophistication in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere in Iraq without a pause after the fall of the Ba’athist Regime.

Similarly, a Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) report from October 2005 noted:

“The development of the IED capability in Iraq has been rapid. By way of comparison, the level of IED expertise reached by the IRA over some 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland has been far exceeded by Iraqi insurgents in less than three years.

Operation Banner (the British Army’s deployment in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2007) was the longest such exercise in its military history,” says Clonan. “It was obvious that when the army engaged in Iraq it would use its most recent experiences as a foundation.”

What’s ironic is that Banner, although its longest operation, was also pretty much a failure. In the end they had to talk to the provisionals, they had to negotiate, because they couldn’t defeat them militarily.
In Northern Ireland during the Troubles there were anything up to 60,000 armed troops for a population of less than a million.
In Iraq, the UK and US joint armed forces amounted to roughly 140,000 troops, for a population of 20 million in a geographical area the size of France. It took a million troops just to get Saddam out of Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

“How did they expect to achieve stability?” Clonan asks.

The US rewrote their counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq, because they’d learned from Vietnam that kicking in doors and having the civilian populace hate you was not effective.

“The British by contrast seemed to unlearn everything that Northern Ireland taught them.”

Read: Tony Blair did a solo run on deciding to go to war

Read: Blair: “I express more sorrow and regret and apology than you will ever know”

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