In early 1970, the Ministry of Defence began publication of a four-page card to be issued to every soldier serving in Northern Ireland. It was printed on yellow paper, marked “Restricted”—the lowest security classification—and carried a long and occasionally confusing list of instructions about when a soldier may or may not open fire on a civilian in the province. It began with sensible enough advice. “Never use more force than the minimum necessary to enable you to carry out your duties, ” was one of the general rules. If a soldier had to open fire, the card said, “fire only aimed shots.” But a warning should be given before opening fire, “preferably by loud hailer.” If a guard is approached by a stranger who is behaving suspiciously, the card went on, the soldier is at the second challenge to apply the safety catch of his weapon and shout: “Stand still I am ready to fire.” But soldiers could fire without warning in certain circumstances: when hostile firing was taking place, where delay could lead to serious injury (but then only if the person had a firearm), or at a vehicle if the occupants were opening fire.
The disclosure that such a document existed created a predictable burst of anger from the Ministry of Defence at the time. 1The Guardian reporter responsible for breaking the story was virtually sent to Coventry by the army in Northern Ireland, and complaints were made to his editor about his lack of “responsibility.” But then something very strange emerged from the government—an admission that while the card's instructions had been drawn up by civil servants at the Ministry of Defence, a soldier who obeyed them to the letter could still find himself in court charged with manslaughter. In other words, this carefully worded document had no legal standing. Nothing could have more dramatically illustrated the quasi-legal functions (as opposed to the legal role) of the army in Northern Ireland nor the vagueness with which these functions were conceived.
A glance at James Callaghan's memory of the first British military involvement in Belfast during the current war 2 is enough to illustrate the speed with which the military authorities were, quite unprepared, plunged into the latest Irish conflict. When the first troops entered Derry in August of 1969—they belonged to the Prince of Wales's Own—they crossed the Craigavon Bridge with bayonets fixed to their self-loading rifles. Officers at that time thought that their presence would be a very temporary one and for two years afterward their superiors announced (at least to the press) that