Military Reaction Forces in Northern Ireland

This week the BBC's flag ship investigative journalism series Panorama broadcast allegations against plain clothes military units operating in Northern Ireland known as "Military Reaction Forces" (MRF). The programme asserts that the MRFs operated outside the British military's rules of engagement and were responsible for the death and wounding of a number of unarmed civilians in West Belfast in 1972. One document from British archives that appears to be referenced in the broadcast is the following Ministry of Defence review of the MRFs. Recognising the valuable contribution plain clothes units could make in countering the troubles in Northern Ireland, especially in regard to intelligence gathering, it is recognised that the units required more specialist training and tighter command and control. The proposed training would by necessity have to come from the Special Air Service. However, it was equally recognised that should the SAS's involvement become public, it would be a gift to propagandists and "might also give rise to genuine concern among the well-intentioned."





Copy 4 of 11 copies


Prime Minister

Some members of the Army in Northern Ireland operate in plain clothes; they are formed into teams which gather intelligence in "hard" areas, help to forestall terrorist activities and carry out arrests. We have made no secret of the existence of these teams. I believe that the public generally accept that the Army would be wasting good opportunities if they did not operate in this way: and there has been little adverse comment on their activities in the Press.

2. As the attached note explains, there is a case for reorganising these plain clothes teams in order to improve their selection and training, their control by Headquarters Northern Ireland and their administration; this should greatly increase their effectiveness and reduce the chances of mistakes. The only organisation which is qualified to take on the job of selecting and training volunteers for these plain clothes teams is the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). They have the experience, skills and facilities needed to produce specialised operators in this field. If we use SAS resources to set up the new organisation, we shall do all we can to prevent their involvement becoming known. But there is always the risk that it might become known. It would then no doubt be misrepresented by the propagandists; and it might also give rise to genuine concern among the well-intentioned.

3. I should be sorry to lose this opportunity to sharpen up the effectiveness of the Army plain clothes teams in Northern Ireland, I can see no practicable alternative to using SAS to help in setting the new organisation up: but, since there is a chance that this could give rise to public controversy, I should be grateful to know whether you and my colleagues agree.

4. I am sending copies of this minute to (other members of the GEN 79 Committee).

Secretary of State



The Current System

1. When the bombing campaign in Northern Ireland began at Easter 1971, the Army formed a number of small covert teams known as "bomb squads". Their role was to gather intelligence about terrorist activities and remedy the lack of admissible evidence which would stand up in court. The teams were joint RUC/Army, but were unsuccessful, largely owing to difficulties over sharing intelligence. However, when internment was introduced in August 1971 the RUC withdrew and the teams were later reformed and expanded as Military Reaction Forces (MRFs), whose tasks were to carry out covert operations, including surveillance, protection, counter-hijacking and arrests. Each of the three brigades in the Province now has a small MRF under its command. Most of the men in the MRFs are drawn from units already in Northern Ireland, but the teams are not properly established or specially trained and are run on an ad hoc basis.

2. This system is unsatisfactory for the following reasons:

a. Men so recruited are inexperienced and lack the necessary security-consciousness and expertise for this type of employment.

b. The men are continually changing over as parent units come and go.

c. Although the MRFs are under the overall control of the Commander Land Forces (CLF) there is no provision for detailed command and control and no administrative support for the Force as a whole.

There is therefore a relatively high risk of mistakes and exposure and elements of the existing force have been compromised. However, it should be said that the MRFs have been responsible for a large amount of the intelligence gained and have proved the techniques to be effective and worthwhile. The importance of this type of work will increase as force levels are reduced and especially if the need to maintain surveillance of Protestant areas increases, or if there is a Provisional IRA cease-fire leading to a lesser military presence in Catholic areas. A thorough re-appraisal has therefore been carried out in order to bring these operations under closer, more coordinated and more centralised control, to regularise the administration of the operational teams and to achieve a higher standard of training among the members of the force both for the task and for their personal safety.

New Proposals

3. It is now proposed to establish a Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) of some 120 all ranks for this purpose which will come under the direct command of CLF. The Director and Controller of Intelligence (DCI), who is in agreement with the new proposals, will direct policy and, through his representative at HQ Northern Ireland, will be able to keep a professional eye on the security aspects of the unit.

4. The men will be selected volunteers who will receive special training in England before they take up their duties and serve in Northern Ireland unaccompanied for one year (key personnel for 18 months). As the whole organisation becomes more professional the risk of exposure and penetration of the operations should become correspond­ingly smaller. The process of selection and training of volunteers is therefore the key to the success of the whole project.

5. The selection processes will start with Commanding Officers, and all those in Great Britain and BAOR whose units have served in Northern Ireland or are Irish based will be approached in the first place. Men will be invited to volunteer on a personal basis and will be told that their task will consist of intelligence duties in plain clothes in Ulster. Members of 22 SAS will be excluded as will any men who have served with SAS within the previous 3 years. Volunteers will then carry out an 8 week selection and training course.

6. The existing MRF is already beginning to run down and there is some urgency in getting the new organisation established. The SAS already have a well-proven selection procedure and training facilities for the type of tasks involved, and are unmatched in the necessary experience and skills. No other Army organisation exists which could take on this function, due to its high degree of specialisation; and it would be very difficult in the time available to create a new selection and training system from scratch. It is therefore proposed to make use of 22 SAS resources in setting up the selection and training courses for the new force. These will take place away from the base and normal training areas of the SAS; SAS uniform will not be worn and every means will be taken to conceal SAS involvement. On this basis the first course can begin on 1 January 1973 and the build-up of the new force will begin in early March. It should be completed by August 7. There is of course no question of an extension of the powers available to, or the rules of engagement which apply to any soldiers. Special care will be taken to operate within the law.


8. The MRFs are hampered in their work by uncoordinated command and administration, and by lack of training and experience. A new SRU is required under the control of CLF, manned by selected volunteers who will be specially trained and able to give continuity to the task.

9. Some former SAS members will be included (though not with recent SAS experience). 22 SAS will support the project with selection and training courses; no other organisation exists which could do this.


[Source: British National Archives (TNA): DEFE 25/282, transcribed by]