Big Boys' Rules : The SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA, Paperback

Big Boys' Rules : The SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA Paperback

4.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


The SAS describes its attitude to the use of lethal force as 'Big boys' games, big boys' rules'.

Anyone caught with a gun or bomb can expect to be shot.

In Big Boys' Rules: The SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA Mark Urban meticulously explores the security forces' covert operations in Northern Ireland: from the mid-1970s, when they were stepped up, to the Loughall ambush in 1987, in which eight IRA Provisionals were killed.

While charting the successes and failures of special operations during the troubles, Urban reveals the unenviable dilemmas faced by intelligence chiefs engaged in a daily struggle against one of the world's most sophisticated terrorist organisations. "This is a book that needed to be written and which fulfils the essentials of any Ulster story; it expands understanding beyond fragmented jingoism and newspaper headlines." (John Stalker, Sunday Times).


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 304 pages, Illustrations, 1map
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Revolutions, uprisings, rebellions
  • ISBN: 9780571168095



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Urban brings a journalists eye to the story of special forces activities in Northern Ireland during the 1970's and 80's, and concludes that their deployment resulted in systemic abuses, mostly directed against Nationalist groups such as the IRA and INLA. Urban's careful and persuasive research suggests that there was (at times) a deliberate policy of ambushing suspects and shooting to kill in preference to either deterring crimes or making arrests. The results of this policy, Urban argues, was increased support for terrorists within the community, and a corruption of the processes of law and order - both in the concealment of information from the Courts, and in turning a blind eye to criminal and terrorist activity undertaken by informers. Even if all of this was an inevitable cost of fighting terrorism, Urban asks whether the the fact that one in five of the people killed by the SAS in such operations were innocent civilians could ever be acceptable.Urban notes that this abuse was largely confined to particular periods during the SAS's deployment in Northern Ireland. There were extended periods where the SAS appeared to operate in a restrained manner, focussing on their special skills in surveillance in support of regular police operations. Rather than detracting from his argument, Urban suggests that this shows that the SAS was at different times operating under different leadership and rules. Urban gives considerable background into the long running argument between the use of military and civil forces in bringing law and order to Northern Ireland. He argues that the use of overt military force and the suspension of normal civil rights played into the hands of the terrorist organizations.In addition to giving what appears to be a very 'inside' account of operations in Northern Ireland which reflects very little credit upon any of the players, Urban also asks what this has done to the SAS. To the extent that the military involvement in Northern Ireland is 'over' this is a matter of history and long past. But the lingering question is whether in some new conflict the SAS traditions of detached professionalism and measured discipline could again be subverted by confused political direction and sometimes poor local leadership, and by a recruiting policy that at times appeared to favour an aggressive 'shoot-first' culture among new recruits.'Big Boy's Rules' isn't an outright condemnation of the SAS, but it is a cautionary tale about how it doesn't always live up to its own traditions. In making this judgement, Urban brings to bear not only the perspective of 'liberal' journalism, but also that of a former regular soldier in a traditional Army unit (the Tank Corps). The SAS under the pressure of operations in Northern Ireland at times forgot that they were answerable to civil society for their actions. Urban's choice of the title for his book is deeply ironic, and a slap in the face of gung-ho soldiering. He took it from a quote from a serving SAS soldier 'If they (the IRA) want to play with big boy's toys, then they'll have to expect to play by big boy's rules'." Bringing military force to bear to attempt to resolve domestic terrorism should not, Urban points out, ever be considered a game. And not something that little boys, or big boys have any business being involved in.

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