An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland, 1971-1972

Edward Burke

Research output: Book/ReportBook


This is the first such examination of Operation Banner, the British Army’s campaign in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007. Taking three Battalions as case studies, drawing upon extensive interviews with former soldiers, primary archival sources including unpublished diaries, this study closely examines soldiers’ behaviour at the small infantry-unit level (Battalion downwards), including the leadership, cohesion, orientation and motivation that sustained, restrained and occasionally obstructed soldiers in Northern Ireland during the most violent years of the conflict (1971-1972). It contends that there are aspects of wider scholarly literature, including from sociology, anthropology, criminology, and psychology, that throw new light on our understanding of the British Army in Northern Ireland. The study also contributes insights into soldiers’ experiences of combat, as well as analysing instances of abuse and criminal behaviour among soldiers. It offers new information on significant events, such as the ‘Pitchfork murders’, the 1972 killings of Michael Naan and Andrew Murray by soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the death of Edmund Woolsey in an explosion in South Armagh.

The central argument of this study is that British Army small infantry units enjoyed considerable autonomy during the early years of Operation Banner and could behave in a vengeful, highly aggressive or benign and conciliatory way as their local commanders saw fit. The strain of civil-military relations at a senior level was replicated operationally – as soldiers came to resent the limitations of waging war in the UK. The unwillingness of the Army’s senior leadership to thoroughly investigate and punish serious transgressions of standard operating procedures in Northern Ireland created uncertainty among soldiers over expected behaviour and desired outcomes. Mid-ranking officers and NCOs often played important roles in restraining soldiers in Northern Ireland. The degree of violence used in Northern was much less that that seen in the colonial wars fought since the end of The Second World War. But overly aggressive groups of soldiers could also be mistaken for high-functioning units – with negative consequences for the Army’s overall strategy in Northern Ireland.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherLiverpool University Press
Number of pages352
ISBN (Print)978-1786940971
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2018


Dive into the research topics of 'An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland, 1971-1972'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this