Hard Brexit, hard border, hard men

Photo by Kevin Kosi on Pexels.com

Overlooking the Lunch Lounge cafe on Castlereagh Road in Loyalist East Belfast, three gunmen pose with automatic weapons and offer their unwavering support ‘For God and Ulster’. The mural is a reminder of darker days; the Troubles, when Northern Ireland was riven with sectarian hatred.

Amid the talk of no deal and hard borders, does Brexit really have the power to hand Northern Ireland’s future back to the gunmen?

History shows what would likely happen to any fixed infrastructure on the border. “If something looks like a target it will be treated as such,” says a spokesman for the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI). A former Special Branch Officer agrees: “Any infrastructure on the border will be a target, without a shadow of a doubt.”

Rancour and division remain in Northern Ireland. The imperfect peace has left “a disappointing variety of normal” compared to the rest of the UK, in the words of one security expert. Certainly levels of violence are down: in 2018 there were 39 shootings and 17 bombings, both down slightly from the previous year, resulting in 50 casualties and two deaths. But while the allure of paramilitary groups has dimmed, as their capability and calling has reduced, they haven’t gone away you know, and the polarisation of politics means they have a greater audience for their messages. Young hot-heads will always listen to war stories.

Such talk is quickly dismissed by locals in the Lunch Lounge cafe.

“Brexit won’t make any difference to us,” says an octogenarian diner buttering a fruit scone. But not everyone is so sanguine. A lot will depend on whether Unionists perceive a threat to the union, says a security source. If they feel disenfranchised, Loyalist paramilitaries could be encouraged to take to the streets.

Those keen on maintaining, and defending, the link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain work in areas of national infrastructure – such as power generation and transportation – to a much greater degree than those with Nationalist sympathies. Concerted industrial action, albeit short of actual civil disobedience, could still cause headaches in Westminster.

Doug Beattie, a member of the Stormont Assembly for the Ulster Unionist Party, describes himself as an optimistic pessimist. Speaking in Portadown, a town once under the spell of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, he expresses support for the teaching of the Irish language, same-sex marriage and abortion. But his sunny disposition soon darkens.

Pointing out that 56 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted for Remain in 2016, he fears both the DUP and Sinn Féin see advantages in whipping up tensions. “They’ve both done it before,” he says. The DUP play on the sovereignty issue, he believes, and Sinn Féin, a party historically cool towards the EU, senses another opportunity to push for a united Ireland, so gripes about leaving. They may even orchestrate civil disobedience in border towns such as Newry, Crossmaglen and Londonderry so as to agitate for a referendum, he warns.

“If we exit on a no deal basis then [Sinn Féin’s] call for a border poll will really take off. And it’s difficult to say they can’t have it. And if we do it for Northern Ireland, there’s a chance we may have to do it for Scotland. A no deal Brexit could see the breakup of the union.”

The Falls Road in Republican West Belfast holds a totemic position in the history of Britain’s involvement in the Troubles. Locals are wary of outsiders, and the Sinn Féin offices, still sporting the mural to Republican hero Bobby Sands – proclaiming ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’ – are only accessed after much explanation and the unlocking of doors.

The party says there are only two ways to avoid a hard Brexit on the island of Ireland. First, the north (it does not use the term ‘Northern Ireland’) should be given special status and stay within the EU structures. The second way would be to unite the island after a referendum. Neither are remotely palatable for Unionists.

Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said in a statement to the Telegraph: “Ireland’s people, Ireland’s economy and Ireland’s peace process all need to be protected as we go forward.

“We need to say clearly to the British that if they wish to Brexit then that’s a matter for themselves but any Brexit agreement needs to recognise, understand and protect the people, the economy and the peace process on this island.”

The British government is keen to dampen any speculation of increased security preparation. The PSNI currently grades the threat from Dissident Republicans as ‘severe’ and says the government gave permission for an extra 300 officers to be recruited as a one-off because of the uncertainty around Brexit. Beyond that all the spokesman would say was “it’s a political decision. Everyone’s watching with bated breath”. The army and Northern Ireland Office would not discuss the issue.

However, security insiders suggest that rather than fixed infrastructure or a greater presence by the police or military, the security response to a no deal Brexit is expected to be more subtle. Intelligence-led work by the police, MI5, National Crime Agency and others is likely to increase in intensity, if not visibility. The check points were there to tackle terrorism, says Mr Beattie, “and even then they didn’t work”.

Like the rest of the UK, whichever way Brexit goes there will be people left feeling hard done by in Northern Ireland. The difference is that with the Stormont Assembly suspended for the last two years there are few political mechanisms through which the inevitable issues can be resolved. Border infrastructure in the event of a no deal Brexit is most unlikely, but civil disobedience, with the attendant risk of spiralling into greater violence, is not. Agendas abound, hidden and otherwise, and paramilitaries still lurk. As one security source says: “The devil continues his work in the shadows”.


Oil on troubled waters: the Royal Navy in the Gulf

IMG_1061The three Iranian Fast Attack Craft sped towards HMS Dragon from the port side. Nimble, quick and armed with machine guns, the small vessels darted towards the Royal Navy Type 45 Destroyer, threatening to weave between her and the three other British vessels she was escorting through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf. Although dwarfed by the British ships, if the Iranians had malign intent they could still cause a lot of damage.

The Revolutionary Guards on the speed boats filmed the British reaction as they raced over the calm sea, looking for any signs of weakness or sloppy drills. Finding neither.

HMS Dragon’s Captain ordered five deafening blasts of the ship’s horn – the international warning signal – as his crew donned helmets and body armour and manned the ship’s heavy machine guns; an escalatory but proportionate response. The Officer of the Watch called the Sapan Navy, the name for the naval element of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, over the radio.

“Sapan navy, Sapan navy. This is Coalition warship. Despite assuring me you would remain 4000 yards clear of my position you have impeded my passage. Request you remain 1000 yards clear of my port side. Do you understand? Over.”

“For your information we are here to safeguard our national sovereignty and we are doing routine operations. Over,” came the reply.

HMS Dragon reduced speed but held her course and the Iranian craft moved aside. The tension slowly eased as they headed back to their island base, just off the coast of Iran.

“You have to provide a robust response,” Commander Mike Carter-Quinn, the ship’s Captain says. “They will push you. If required we could step up the warnings to include flares and ultimately the use of warning shots to make it very clear that we intend to protect ourselves and continue our right to proceed with our task”.

It was a routine encounter between Britain and Iran on the high seas, repeated on almost every passage through the Straits. But there is no room for complacency. “The day you don’t take it seriously is the day you become unstuck,” says the Captain.

The British crew regard such behaviour as normal. Many use identical words to describe the Iranian conduct: safe and professional, a diplomatic if slightly schooled response to my enquiries.

The Royal Navy is charged with projecting British power around the globe every day of the year. That means it occasionally has to sail a delicate diplomatic course through choppy waters. “The contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia provides the backdrop to everything out here,” says Lieutenant Commander Richard Attwater, HMS Dragon’s second-in-command. “It’s a very volatile region. And we’re sailing 8,000 tonnes of Britain right through the middle of it.”


Britain has four Royal Navy Minehunters and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) logistics vessel permanently based in Bahrain. The principal mission of the Minehunters is to ensure safe passage of Britain’s nuclear armed submarines from their base in Scotland out to the North Atlantic. But in recent years the fleet of 13 vessels has also been used to keep open the shipping lanes in the Gulf – and especially the narrow Straits of Hormuz, through which one fifth of the world’s oil is carried.

The Gulf has been a flashpoint for decades. The politics of the region are intricate, frustrating and glacial; outsiders must tread carefully. Britain has friends here, more since America’s pivot to Asia has left many Gulf states questioning the US commitment to the region. But old enmities persist.

“Iran assumes the UK is behind everything that goes wrong for them,” says Professor Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute. “They see the United States as the Great Satan and the UK as the Little Satan. They assume we have immense influence with the US and take us far more seriously that we take ourselves.”

It means Britain can be a conduit to mainstream politics in the Gulf, Mr Clarke believes, but it also means Iran pays extra attention to British ships in the region. “They use the Gulf as a tap to turn on the tension. Anything that happens is not by accident. They use the Gulf as a valve to indicate their degree of cooperation [with the international community] and want to create a sense of danger.”


The big danger right now is the potential collapse of the Iran nuclear deal after Donald Trump’s exit has left it hanging by a thread. There is a real chance of conflict if it fails. Britain is seen by Iran both as a means of influencing America and as the gatekeeper to the other European signatories to the deal.

Iran may decide the wisest course right now is to let events run as they are; an overly aggressive posture towards Britain could be counter-productive. Or it may sense an opportunity to pull at the threads that tie Western powers to the Gulf.

Two Minehunters and an RFA logistics vessel push on through these turbulent geo-political seas, escorted by HMS Dragon, with her twin gas-turbine generators producing enough energy to power a city the size of Leicester, and her air defence radar looking out hundreds of miles for threats from the sky. “We don’t yet understand the full capability of the radar,” says the ships Operations Officer. “It’s like a spaniel straining on a leash.”

Maintaining a naval commitment in the face of these dynamics is costly and dangerous. Why does Britain do it?

“We can’t afford not to,” says Commander Ashley Spencer, head of the Mine Counter Measures fleet. Britain’s naval contribution to the 33-nation Maritime Coalition Force based in Bahrain helps to ensure safe passage on the high seas from the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. This global response is a clear indication of how the world values the continued free movement of trade, 90 per cent of which goes across the oceans.

Britain receives a delivery of Liquified Natural Gas every three days from Qatar to the terminal in Wales, to say nothing of the country’s dependence on oil and containerised goods from elsewhere in the world. If that supply chain were disrupted the effects would be felt very rapidly. “Humans only act out of fear, honour or interest,” Commander Spencer says. “And influencing this region is definitely in Britain’s interest.”


The main contribution the Royal Navy makes is through the Minehunting force. HMS Ledbury and HMS Shoreham are 60m and 53m long respectively. Neither has a crew over 50 souls. But they deliver world-leading mine survey, detection and destruction capabilities. Their fixed (Ledbury) and variable-depth (Shoreham) sonars can see objects as small as tin cans. If a mine has been laid, they will find it.

The hulls of both Minehunters are made of glass reinforced plastic instead of steel like bigger ships. It makes for quieter running and enables the crews to find magnetic and acoustic mines without setting them off. Once given a task, each crew must first test the water for temperature and salinity in order to better employ the ship’s sonars.

When a suspicious object has been identified the crew release an unmanned drone to get a closer look. Seafox, a fibre optic wire-guided mine-hunting submersible controlled from the mother ship, weighs 42kgs and measures just over 1.3m long. Operating down to 270m and up to a kilometre from the ship, it uses its own sonar to identify the exact location of its target, then switches on a light and TV camera so the controller back on the ship can assess whether the target is a mine, a rock or a piece of debris. It’s not unusual to find shopping trolleys on the sea bed, even in the Gulf. Seafox can then destroy the mine by detonating an explosive charge, shaped so as to blast through any armour plating.

Divers can go down to place similar charges if the environment precludes the use of Seafox. A lot of the divers’ training is done in zero visibility back in the UK, so they are used to murky and sandy conditions. But some modern mines will react to the metal parts in dive sets, or the sound of expanding air bubbles exhaled by divers. For these reasons the clearance divers use special diving kits called CDLSE, or clearance divers life support equipment, a mixed gas rebreather set which combines oxygen and helium.

The air breathed out is scrubbed of CO2 then has oxygen added before it is reused by the diver. The sets are quiet and have very low magnetic signatures. But diving is an inherently dangerous task so each Minehunter also has a transportable manned compression chamber for diving casualties. The injured diver is put in the chamber and by the injection of compressed air is effectively taken back down to depth. This causes the inert gases within the blood to compress, at which point they can be flushed out of the diver’s body with up to 100 per cent pure oxygen.

“Diving is a dangerous operation, but for us it’s just a mode of transport to get us to the job that we need to conduct,” says Lieutenant James Dutt, second-in-command of HMS Shoreham.


The little flotilla of ships safely broke out of the Gulf and headed south-west across the Arabian Sea, towards the Omani deep-water port of Duqm to take part in the maritime phase of Exercise Saif Sareea III.

From the bridge of the RFA ship Cardigan Bay we watch as dolphins play through the waves just behind the vessel on the left-hand side; the port quarter in naval terminology. Numbering about 2,000 sailors, the RFA is a civilian fleet of mariners in direct support of the Royal Navy, a role it has played since the Napoleonic wars. The barrel of brandy preserving Admiral Nelson’s body, in transport back to the UK after his death at the battle of Trafalgar, was probably supplied to the Navy by an RFA ship, Captain Jed MacAnley tells me.

RFA ships carry weapons for self-defence, but are dual-roled to provide an amphibious assault capability for the Royal Marines. As such, some adversaries may consider them as combatants; fair game when the shooting starts. The government clarified their legal status a few years ago and RFA personnel are now deemed ‘sponsored reserves’; civilians still, but a uniformed, fighting arm of the Royal Navy, subject to military discipline and thereby protected by the Geneva Conventions when working. The change to their terms of service were not all for the better though. “I can no longer shoot malingerers,” Captain MacAnley says with a grin.

Exercise Saif Sareea III sees 65,000 Omani troops join 5,000 British military personnel, tanks, planes and ships in a huge effort to practice desert warfare. It is also a demonstration of commitment, by both countries. Duqm port, the off-loading point, has 2km-long jetties abutting very deep water. Were Britain’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to come this way in a few years time, Duqm is one of a very small number of places she could berth alongside.

The point is not lost on the Omanis. Outside the port, heading towards the month-old international airport on the traffic-free three-lane carriageway of Airport Road, large wooden signs announce ‘education zone’ or ‘health zone’ to the empty expanse of rocky desert. This place will never draw the tourists like Dubai – the regular south-west monsoon will see to that – but it seeks to draw huge investment and become an economic hub. China has already signed up.

For her part, Britain is seeking to deepen the already strong ties with Oman, and a military staging post such as Duqm, next to a huge and civilian-free training area, is very attractive. The opportunity to exercise on such scale has left Commodore James Parkin, the Amphibious Task Group Commander, in a state of child-like excitement, he says.

Speaking on board HMS Albion, one of Britain’s two dedicated amphibious assault ships, Commodore Parkin extols the virtues of amphibious warfare. “I am swift and silent and can deliver multiple effects from Royal Marines ashore,” he says. Tim Nield, Captain of HMS Albion, agrees. “We can sit 12.1 nautical miles offshore [just outside a country’s territorial limit], completely legally and for a long time,” he says. “A day later, I can be 300 miles away.”

The ability to loiter with the capability to interdict shipping, raid ashore or provide humanitarian relief to a disaster zone focusses political and military minds, friends and foe alike.

“A ship of this size gives us the flexibility to be able to configure ourselves for whatever mission we need to do,” Royal Marine Major James Smith tells me, from the floor of the well dock. Once flooded, the dock can hold four Landing Craft Utility vessels, each with up to 100 Royal Marines and four armoured vehicles on board, ready to go into action.


This is the Royal Navy in 2018: on operations every day of the year, balancing political ambition with military reality and demanding a mental agility from its people to switch seamlessly from delivering hard to soft power depending on the task. It is not without its problems: tours at sea are generally longer than in the past to make best use of the limited number of personnel and the connection to society, so vital for recruitment and national goodwill, has never been more slender.

But there is also cause for much optimism. The Minehunters, Britain’s tupperware warriors, in the words of their commander, are the envy of the world. Maintaining trade routes in the face of regular provocation, they offer an example of how shared risk and enterprise can be mutually beneficial, in an arena far from home. Equally Duqm, access to which was gained by decades of close friendship and commitment to Oman, may well be a future staging post for Britain to exert influence in the uncertain post-Brexit world. But some things are timeless. “Why did I join the Navy?,” one sailor answers me. “I’ve seen the sun set in a thousand places. How many people can say that?”

This article was edited and printed in the Telegraph and online on October 23rd 

Shock and awe: we’ve been on front line for years, say women, as Royal Marines open up commando course to all

Women have been allowed to apply for close combat roles in the Royal Marines for the first time, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced, as veterans say the idea of a ‘front line’ in modern combat is outdated.

After preliminary fitness tests and interviews, up to 20 women are expected to undertake the gruelling 32-week training course at the commando training centre in Lympstone, Devon, next year.

The recruits will train to exactly the same standards as their male colleagues and will sleep in the same dormitories, albeit with separate toilets and showers. The normal military rules of separating the male and female accommodation will be waived in the name of troop cohesion.

Women have previously been allowed to attempt the nine-week commando course designed for military personnel who will be attached to 3 Commando Brigade, but this is the first time women have been offered the chance to serve as regular Royal Marines.

Only three women have passed the nine-week ‘All Arms Commando course’: Major Philippa Tattersall of the army’s Adjutant General’s Corps, Jane Thorley, from the Royal Engineers and a naval officer. All combat roles in the military are to be opened up to women by the end of 2018.

However, women have for years served operationally in direct contact with the enemy; the traditional understanding of the ‘front line’. Female helicopter pilots, intelligence specialists, medics, drivers and linguists operated alongside male infantrymen throughout Britain’s recent campaigns.

“When you think of a soldier, most people have in their minds the image of a man carrying webbing and a radio,” says Vicki Wentworth, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.”But who do you think drives the trucks in a 25-mile Combat Logistic Patrol?” she asks.

“When you get caught in an ambush, it sure feels like the front line, I can tell you.”

The ban on women serving in so-called ‘close combat’ roles was controversially lifted in 2016, after an MoD research paper recommended ways to limit the risk to women of musculoskeletal injury and psychological and reproductive health issues. The paper said Ground Close Combat roles would be opened to women on a deliberate and incremental basis as the appropriate health mitigation strategies became available.

“Women offer another slant to the psychology of the battlefield and can provide reason over aggression when needed.” says Kerri Mitchell, a former Royal Green Jacket soldier prior to her transition in 2011. “The notion of a front line is outdated. The hardest part is getting past the male ego,” she adds.

A Royal Navy spokesperson said: “The Naval Service is pleased to welcome the opportunity that women can serve in ground close combat roles in the Royal Marines General Service. This historic decision will ensure that we have the best people for the job, regardless of gender and based only on ability.”

An Army spokesperson agreed. “We are committed to giving women the same opportunities as men. Lifting this exclusion will allow us to attract and retain talented individuals from across society irrespective of gender.”