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on 8 April 2012
Interesting read on the secret war in Northern Ireland. It did not, however, cover operations and incidents as much as I thought it would and instead was more about the political background to the struggles.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 August 2015
Don’t believe the negative reviews that claim that this is pro-terrorist propaganda. This book is about the sorts of dilemmas that liberal states face when fighting terrorism, especially to what extent such a fight should be constrained by the rule of law. It is a thoughtful approach to a vexed question which rejects the apologetics of right-wing tabloids or the inverted good guys/bad guys approach taken by films like Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda. It is not the work of a man whose mind was clearly made up before he started writing.

It is not just a study of the SAS role in the conflict. Only part of the book is about the actual operational role of the SAS. Rather, the role of the SAS is examined in relation to political considerations, with various divisions of opinion within the security establishment as to who should lead the fight - i.e. the police or the army - and with what means.

This means some considerable detail about the bureaucratic struggles and in-fighting which shaped policy, which can be a bit heavy going. But it's important to cover that, because too many nuances were lost in some of the polemical exchanges this subject generated in the 1980s (especially from the Republican side and their allies among the British left). In the late 70s, there was genuine disquiet among civilian police about the use of Special Forces and such reservations were never entirely dispelled.

In essence, the book concludes that there was, in all likelihood, an unofficial shoot to kill policy (not words he actually uses explicitly to describe the policy) but, contrary to Republican claims, there was no blanket, official policy to kill IRA volunteers wherever they were found. Instead, SAS ambushes aimed to create ‘clean kills’, to gun down terrorists caught in the act (as Loughgall in May 1987). He is also sceptical about the some of the more lurid claims of close collaboration between the security forces and loyalist terrorists.

Let there be no misunderstanding here. Urban thought that terrorism needed to be fought. He supports the use of informers as the best non-violent way of gathering intelligence in support of non-violent police work. Having said that, he is skeptical whether this ‘surgical’ violence (which killed a couple of dozen of terrorists but also several innocent bystanders) had accomplished much in the way toward reducing terrorist violence.

When you have read this book, you may disagree with him and shrug your shoulders and say that there was a war going on and point out (as Urban quotes one of his sources as saying) that the IRA did not exactly ‘shoot-to-tickle’ – such as its practice of killing off-duty security forces members in their homes, in front of their families. One person though who would have disagreed with you was Enoch Powell, quoted on p. 205:

‘The IRA isn’t a thing upon which war can be declared. If we make it a nation state and say that we are going to treat you as a nation state and recognize you as a nation and declare war upon you, then you would in fact have installed in the IRA in the very position it seeks to attain by means of terror’
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on 9 December 2013
I recently read Pig in the Middle which I found fascinating. Big Boys' Rules contains all the same (in)famous characters and dates, the difference being that Mark Urban examines in some detail the roles of Special Forces, MI5 and special units of the RUC.
(I have also read Taskforce Black which encouraged me to try this book)

The underlying dilemma is "One Man's Terrorist is another Man's Freedom Fighter". I must say that I never realized that the Provisional IRA referred to their dead as martyrs.

I couldn't put the book down, as I moved from one incident to the next through the 70's and 80's. There are some amazing stories of bravery, where lone British soldiers have walked away from what I can only describe as unimaginably deadly situations. As well as the deaths of innocent people either caught in the cross-fire or victims of their own curiosity.

In some ways it is like a spy novel on steroids with informers, double agents, spy catchers and enforcers. Within the bounds of the book the violence and brutality is unbelievable, but you must remember that the Provisional IRA was one of the most ruthless and efficient terrorist organizations of the late twentieth century. Is there any other method to adopt other than being equally ruthless and efficient when the opportunity allows?

It is a very interesting, exciting and readable book, and you begin to realize how much of a "Dirty War" the conflict in Northern Ireland was for both side in the conflict.
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on 9 August 2010
This is an excellent book. Mark Urban is no mug, and he casts a cold, discriminating eye over the security forces' struggle against the IRA. He focuses, in particular, on the alleged "shoot-to-kill" policy of the British Army and RUC. His judgements, though inevitably hedged and cautious (this is, after all, a shadowy world - it is unrealistic to expect definitive conclusions), are not especially favourable. Urban writes from the perspective of someone who expects high standards of the British state. One might argue that this is overly idealistic and that IRA men had it coming to them; but, nonetheless, this account is a useful rejoinder to the more credulous and jingoistic reportage of the popular British press. Those of you less interested in morality and more interested in "boys' tales" will enjoy his account of the SAS's tactics, ethos and selection process.
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on 21 April 2011
big boys games,big boys rules is an excellent read. Tells the true story of the secret dirty war between the sas and the ira. Pulls no punches,tells the reader exactly what the sas was up against. Not just terrorists but the attitude and mis trust of some police and polititions. Mark urban has stuck to the facts and done the subject matter and the people involved justice. Recommended.
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on 13 October 2013
Another slant on how the Troubles were responded to, with a force of fearsome reputation, but needing to be an integrated part of the fight.

British Army tribalism hinders getting the best use of a "surgical" force and this is accurately described.

Well worth a read without doubt!
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on 14 November 2013
very deep and informative account of the period witch i grew up in.very touched when i read the account of the death of paul oram as i knew his wife through work and met him a couple of times.
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on 13 January 2016
An excellent book that manages to objectively look at an incredibly complex time in British/Irish history. It provides a succinct analysis of key events, players and the changing priorities of all parties during the period.

One thing I would liked to have seen is possibly a new edition/forward from Mark Urban revisiting what he wrote 20 years ago. That, and the odd sentence written before the completion of the peace process, does occasionally date the book. However, this should not detract from a well researched, closely argued and easy to read book.
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on 24 April 2013
Although I found much in this book of interest, be warned that it was originally published some time ago. Since then much more information has come in to the public domain following the peace process in Northern Ireland.

I also felt the book overly sympathetic to the Nationalist/Terrorist agenda. Police and soldiers seem to 'murder' people while terrorist's victims are 'killed'.

I am sure there are more up to date analyses of the subject now available.
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on 3 July 2015
More a reference book, with far too many abbreviations, which would be instantly recognisable if the reader was a member of the SAS, but most of us are not, and I found myself constantly checking back. I was expecting more in depth descriptions of operations, but unfortunately there aren't any.
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