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UK Politics

Pursuit of terrorists is 'like a tiger hunt', said British general

Army commander's choice of words at a sensitive time provoked protest from his colleagues

The campaign against terrorists was described as "like a tiger hunt" by Britain's top military officer in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.

Lieutenant General Sir John Waters urged Army commanders in the province in June 1989 to view terrorists like the quarry in "an old-fashioned tiger hunt". His directive declared that police and army units should work together like beaters and experienced hunters to drive targets "on to the guns".

His words, at a time when the British military were accused of operating a shoot-to-kill policy, provoked protests from his colleagues. Major General Charles Guthrie, now a peer, complained that "the references in the letter to tiger hunting and killing are ill-advised".

Full details of the document, which became known as the "Tiger in the Jungle" paper, emerged amid renewed criticism of the Army's role during the Troubles, as SAS officers faced questioning over the deaths of two IRA men in Loughgall in 1990. However, the special forces officer in charge of the operation that ended with the deaths of Martin McCaughey and Dessie Grew said his men opened fire only if life was endangered.

Lt-Gen Waters, who was General Officer Commanding the British Army in Northern Ireland from 1988 to 1990, sent all his commanders a "concept of operations" paper detailing what was expected from them during their time in Ulster. The paper dealt with the issue of "police primacy" – which had become a bone of contention between the security forces at the time – stating that "wherever possible, the maintenance of public order and anti-terrorism are conducted by the police".

But the seventh of his 17 points caused consternation among his superiors. "The way that the standard units and the specialist units should work together to get success can be compared with an old-fashioned tiger hunt," Lt-Gen Waters declared in the document, released by the Ministry of Defence under Freedom of Information legislation. "The most experienced hunters are placed in what is judged to be the very best position from which to get a shot.

"The beaters surround the area of the jungle where the tigers are expected to be and drive them on to the guns. Beating requires great skill and coordination to prevent the tigers breaking out of the cordon, or killing some of the beaters.

"Frequently the tigers break back, make a mistake, and expose themselves to the beaters. This is the opportunity for the beaters, who also carry guns, to get a tiger."

Maj-Gen Guthrie asked his colleague to moderate his language. He wrote, in August 1989: "My main worry is that, whatever caveats are attached to the documents, their contents will leak out in a way which will cause embarrassment to you, the Army Department and Ministers. Bitter experience suggests that such quotable phrases become so widely discussed that they are almost bound to reach unauthorised ears sooner or later."

The Labour MP Paul Flynn said: "I am all in favour of letting sleeping dogs lie, but this type of leadership is much worse than I had ever expected."

The Tory MP Patrick Mercer, who served briefly under Waters in Northern Ireland, said his senior was handling the row over the relationship between police and military units.

He said: "It's worth remembering that he wrote this at the height of the disease of political correctness. At that time, military operations would be put off because the police decided that killing terrorists would likely cause more trouble than it solved."