May 30, 2010:
Despite the massive stand down of British ground troops in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1997, British special forces have been back to Ulster, starting in March of 2009. The British Army operations in Northern Ireland, dubbed Operation "Banner", ran from 1969, when the insurgency in Northern Ireland started, until 2007, when the province was deemed safe enough to withdraw military forces. "Banner" was the longest continuous deployment of the British Army in history.
With the peace agreement in place and the primary combatants, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Association, standing down, many people assumed that there would no longer be a need for the military to step in clamp down on terrorism. Many also assumed that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) would be able to keep a lid on any dissident republican violence.
However, smaller Irish terror groups like the Real IRA have been more active over the past year, with two British soldiers murdered in an attack on an Army barracks last March. The problem of dissident republicans, and their potential to turn Northern Ireland once again into a war zone, has had the British government taking no chances. Thus, the SRR (Special Reconnaissance Regiment) has been working in Ulster over the past year to keep tabs and gather intelligence on groups like the Real IRA and Continuity IRA.
Specialist units have long played a major role in the counter-terror war in Northern Ireland. The Special Air Service (SAS) at one point had an entire troop dedicated to carrying out operations against IRA targets in the province. Less well-known, however, was the 14 Military Intelligence Company, informally known as "The Det" (The Detachment). The 14 Det was the forerunner of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, carried out the exact same duties, and was, during its operation, regarded as possibly the most effective counter-terrorist intelligence organization in the world.
The purpose of The Det, unlike the SAS in Ulster, was not to arrest or neutralize IRA operatives, but to covertly gather intelligence on them. Operatives went through a secret program that included covert photography, surveillance and counter-surveillance tradecraft, disguise, accent training (to make the operators sound native Irish), unarmed combat, and, of course, close-quarter battle and weapons training. Although not tasked with confronting or capturing suspects, members of the 14 Company were notorious for being armed to the teeth, given the nature of their work, often carrying MP5 submachine guns and 9mm pistols on their persons and in their surveillance cars.
The group's work paid off, disrupting dozens of terrorist attacks and providing the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) with information on dozens of IRA members and sympathizers. Most consider the unit's experience to have been a major success. The Det would provide the information they gathered from taking photos or bugging rooms to the RUC's HMSU (Headquarters Mobile Support Unit), or the SAS, who then arrested or killed the terrorists.
With the advent of the War on Terror, the unit was morphed into the new Special Reconnaissance Regiment in 2004. This was done not only because the war in Northern Ireland was seen to be essentially over, but because the British military needed the same kind of surveillance and intelligence gathering skills, but needed it applied to Islamic terrorism in place like Iraq and Afghanistan. The SRR receives the same training as the old 14 Military Intelligence Company did, and has seen service all over the world. But with Ulster's centuries-old problems apparently heating up again, the British government is determined to find out who's behind it and stop them before the entire province is up in flames again. Thus, Britain's special ops have headed back to Ireland for what many hope will be their last deployment there, stamping out Irish republican terrorism for good.