A 'Dirty History' of Wheelbarrow?


I’ve just read a real humdinger (and not in a good way). It’s an academic paper called, ‘Making Safe: the dirty history of a bomb disposal robot’, published in the journal Security Dialogue. The author, one Prof D Lisle, states that she wants to ‘dirty the clean history of Wheelbarrow’. She says she does this because, ‘Much as I acknowledge the lifesaving benefits of the Wheelbarrow robot, I do not accept that its ends justify its means.’


So, let me get this straight: here’s a machine developed by the British Army to save lives from terrorist bombs, but, frankly, Lisle would rather it had never been invented as the ends do not justify the means. Uh?


Lisle is careful to point out that she does not do this ‘to romanticise the IRA bombers’. Whilst she may not actually do that, she does little to demonise them either. The bombing campaign is framed in the context of being a battle of wits between the British Army and the bombers, as here:


[The story] ‘begins in the early 1970s when the IRA was detonating a huge number of bombs (mostly car bombs) and the British Army’s efforts to stop them were constantly lagging behind.’


By taking this approach, she manages to avoid engaging with the catastrophic consequences of the bombings, leaving her free to prod, poke and criticise those trying to stop them – the Army’s Ammunition Technical Officers (ATOs), aided (or should I say ‘abetted’?) by their trusty Wheelbarrows.


In the build-up to the invention of Wheelbarrow in 1972, Lisle provides not one description of a single bombing incident to underline the filthy and cowardly tactics of the IRA. She quotes freely from my own book, 3-2-1 Bomb Gone when it comes to taking random remarks from ATOs, but studiously ignores the many detailed descriptions of the bombings themselves. She could, for example, have taken my account of ‘Bloody Friday’ on 21 July 1972, when the IRA detonated 20 devices in Belfast, killing nine people and injuring 130. The attack was initiated during the afternoon when the streets were crowded with shoppers. A 14-year-old boy was killed when a car bomb exploded next to him as he was trying to warn shoppers away. His father could only identify him by his hands, a box of trick matches in his pocket and his Boy Scout belt. That is what Wheelbarrow was invented to prevent.


Describing this same incident for the BBC TV series The Provos in 1997, one former police officer described seeing a head stuck to a wall.


‘A couple of days later, we found vertebrae and a ribcage on the roof of a nearby building. The reason we found it was because the seagulls were diving onto it.’


Just ten days later, the IRA hit the small country village of Claudy with three car bombs, killing a further nine people, including a nine-year-old girl and a boy of fifteen.


I say again, that was what Wheelbarrow was invented to prevent.


So, how does Lisle manage to ‘dirty’ the history of this life saving machine. Frankly, it’s difficult to say. She writes in such convoluted academic jargonese that one has to read every sentence two or three times to work out quite what she’s trying to say. Take this explanation of her motive:


‘…I do this to argue that any micropolitical genealogy of the Troubles must first acknowledge the asymmetrical colonial circuits that NI was attached to , but then work even harder to foreground how variegated, fragmented and fractured these circuits were.’


Got that? No? Me neither. And there are pages and pages of this stuff.


I would like to list the points which Lisle cites to ‘dirty’ Wheelbarrow’s history. Unfortunately, the densely opaque and meandering quality of her writing makes this difficult. But I’ll try.


First, she objects to the description of Wheelbarrow’s development, with a few ‘maverick’ individuals working against the clock, and using their initiative to come up with unorthodox approaches. She really hates this because it ‘embodies the British cultural bedrock of simply getting on with it’ (her italics).


Second, she creates the impression that the designers, inventors and users were using Northern Ireland as a colonial test-bed for their invention. It’s almost as if the bombings weren’t happening, and Wheelbarrow was being developed just for the sake of it. Rather than blaming the bombers, she argues that ‘NI’s landscape, population and social fabric were made available for a variety of interventions by the British Army and their various military technologies.’ She goes on to say that ‘local life-worlds were used, ignored, exploited displaced, driven over, occupied or destroyed in order for that machine to be tested, adapted and deployed.’ She states that ‘we don’t hear from those who were questioned or moved out of their homes, places of work, shops, cafes, parks, gyms, churches and public buildings’. In fact, she even ascribes ‘local lives lost, properties damaged and times wasted’ as some of the costs of experimenting with Wheelbarrow. So, just in case you’re not following, it wasn’t the bombers who were responsible for all that – according to Lisle, it was the Army trying to invent something to stop the bombs. Of course! How stupid of me!


Third, she seems to object to the way in which Wheelbarrow reduced the risk to the bomb disposal operator: ‘the risk was “transferred” from the shoulders of the ATOs to the metal mainframe of the machine’. I’m not sure why she objects so strongly. Possibly the answer is in the final paragraph of this section, where she states:


‘…what we see is a highly contingent redistribution of agency which involved co-dependent feedback loops, recursions and contaminations, and that punctured the assumed superiority – and indeed, masculinity – of the human inventors and operators mythologized in the British Army’s preferred account of the Wheelbarrow robot.’


I’m not sure whether Lisle is most aggrieved that the use of the robot has punctured the operators’ masculinity, or whether the operators themselves should be. And I’m not sure how female operators would feel about this!


Fourth, Lisle is affronted by the Wheelbarrow’s sheer propensity for disobedience. She writes that it was ‘slow, unstable, cumbersome, clunky, imprecise and constantly failed to match the visual precision of the human eye, the fine-tuned dexterity of the human hand and the stability of the human gait’. She uses this section to disparage the efforts of the inventors, designers and operators, citing a litany of failures, and surmising that these failures were never incorporated into creating ‘an ultimately successful machine’. Her examples are often taken out of context, and lacking in explanation. For example, in selectively adapting one comment from a Staff Sergeant quoted in my book 3-2-1 Bomb Gone, she writes:


‘The machine was very unsophisticated…it would often fall over if it came into contact with the edge of the pavement.’


In the book, the comment about lack of sophistication comes much earlier in the paragraph. The actual quote reads:


The machine worked well, but would often fall over if it came into contact with the edge of the pavement.’ (My emphasis.)


Whilst Lisle states that she does not mean to glamorise the IRA bombers, she compares the bomb makers with Wheelbarrow’s inventors thus:


‘…the IRA were performing similar actions of inventing, experimenting and testing, only they were succeeding in clandestine laboratories, using illegal global supply chains, and performing experiments while trying to avoid surveillance and infiltration.’


Gosh! If only we’d had people like that on our side!


Finally, Lisle takes issue with the thought that Wheelbarrow was popular with the local populace. She states that, for onlookers, as well as curiosity, there would also have been ‘boredom, irritation, distraction, weariness, conviviality, resignation and anger’. No doubt, but all those emotions are preferable to the loss of an arm, a leg or a loved one.


Gentle reader, you may by now have detected that I am not a fan of this particular paper. It is biased, selective, lacking depth of understanding and riddled with errors. ATOs are referred to as ‘Ammunition Technical Operators’, when the ‘O’ stands for ‘Officers’. My former colleague Gareth Collett is referred to as ‘Garrett’ – very Hawaii Five-O, but not actually his name. And we are told that, if Wheelbarrow fails, the operator must take the long walk to ‘diffuse’ (sic) the bomb by hand.


By all means take a look at it. But I warn you, it is very hard going – in more ways than one!

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