I have offered the opinion before that John Major and Tony Blair surrendered far too early in the war against the IRA in Ulster. Even I, a total outsider, began to realise towards the end of the campaign that virtually no ranking member of the IRA could even pass wind without the security forces learning of it. They were riddled with informers from top to bottom and, one sensed, there were also some very sophisticated security intelligence operations being performed. Well, now at least I have some more details.
I have just finished an extraordinary book called The Operators: Inside 14 Intelligence Company written by 'James Rennie'. (The inverted commas indicate my doubt that it is his true name.) Interestingly, I note that it was published by a German publishing house presumably avoiding stringent rules which cover memoires from ex-military personel. It is not an easy read containing as it does far too much jargon which is almost incomprehensible to an outsider. Even so, Mr. 'Rennie', who began his military career as an officer in an infantry regiment, is a good writer and tells his tale well.
14 Int Coy (to use the military abbreviation) recruited volunteers from all of the armed services using soldiers, sailors and airmen - and women! All that the volunteers had to do was pass a selection course which makes hell sound not too bad after all! It was not only a test of physical stamina and agility but also of the ability to absorb a hundred and one details and maintain the ability to think straight whilst under the most severe pressure. Unsurprisingly, most, in fact the vast majority, failed.
So what did these 'supermen' and 'superwomen' actually do? Well, they were quite literally the eyes and ears of MI5, the army and the police. Amongst a plethora of other skills, they mastered the art (or craft) of following suspects through cities, towns, villages or wide open countryside and then maintaining covert surveillance on them. Easy enough, you might think, but imagine trying to watch a house in the middle of a small village in which every local knows everyone else. Also, try working out how you would surreptitiously enter into that house which would usually have double locks on every door and window when the owner was absent without disturbing his neighbours. And then ensure that your 'buggers', so to speak, had the necessary undisturbed two hours needed to search and photograph, and plant tiny surveillance devices. Remembering, of course, that it was critical that these devices were well hidden because if the IRA man concerned found them he would instantly make use of them to pass back to you false information, a case of the hacker hacked! (Mind you, they were clever enough to frequently plant two devices which covered each other so that they knew instantly if one had been discovered.)
These men and women were in constant danger. Dressed in civvies and driving a variety of (apparently) clapped out old cars they drove, or walked, or hung around, in the virulently Catholic areas of Belfast and Londonderry which were filled with gangs of suspiciously minded young men just looking for trouble and quickly able to spot strangers. I would suggest that operating in such areas made going into East Berlin in the '60s look rather easy by comparison.
By its very nature, 14 Int Coy cannot be honoured although it deserves the very highest, and not just for the courage of its operators but also for their superb professionalism. The immense detail they put into thinking through and executing their ops was extraordinary. I don't know if it still exists. Probably not because we are no longer fighting that war. However, I do hope that the huge amount of expertise they built up was not allowed to simply go to waste. They worked closely with MI5 and I trust that MI5 stepped in to pick up some of the operators and their skills when the Ulster campaign ended. Judging by their successes in the security operations against Islamists I rather think they did!
Anyway, join me and raise a surreptitious glass in honour of the very brave and efficient ladies and gentlemen of 14 Int Coy.