Peace dividend in Northern Ireland as army pulls back


Belfast : An era comes to an end in Northern Ireland Tuesday when the British Army officially ends its operational support for the police service, bringing to a close an often troubled relationship with the Irish Nationalist population in the British-administered province.

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The British Army's official role under Operation Banner, which began in 1969, was to support the police in defeating terrorism and maintaining public order and to "assist Her Majesty's government's objective of returning Northern Ireland to normality".

With a power-sharing executive between rival Catholics and Protestants restored in Belfast at the beginning of May and the terrorist campaign of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at an end, Northern Ireland now appears to be firmly on the path to normality.

The demilitarisation of Northern Ireland is a process that began when the first IRA ceasefire was declared in September 1994. Although this broke down in February 1996, it was restored in July 1997 and the IRA has since officially decommissioned its weapons.

The Good Friday Agreement between Unionists and Nationalists in April 1998 set the foundations for power sharing.

The announcement by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, in January that it would now support the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was the final piece in the political jigsaw. This smoothed the way for Sinn Fein and the DUP, the largest Unionist party, to share power together.

The positive political and security developments over the past decade mean that by Aug 1 there will be a garrison of no more than 5,000 troops in 14 bases, reducing to 10 bases in the longer term, the British military says.

This contrasts with 1972, the height of what became known as "the Troubles", when some 27,000 British military personnel were deployed in the province.

Army patrols and checkpoints were once common on the streets and roads of Northern Ireland. However, in future it is envisaged that troops will rarely leave barracks, unless requested to by the police.

As a further part of the normalization process the army's hilltop towers and observation posts have been dismantled and three permanently based battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment are being disbanded.

The background to the deployment goes right back to 1922 when most of Ireland won its freedom from British rule after a guerrilla campaign. However, six northern counties with a Protestant pro-British Unionist majority remained under British administration.

The following half-century saw widespread and systematic discrimination against the Catholic Nationalist minority in Northern Ireland. In the late 1960s Catholics began to agitate for equal rights, leading to tension with the majority population, which spilled over into violence.

In response the British government ordered the army on to the streets in 1969 to protect Catholics from sectarian attacks and to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), now called the PSNI.

Initially the Nationalist population of Northern Ireland welcomed the arrival of the British Army, believing it would protect them from attacks by Protestant extremists. However, the beginning of the IRA terrorist campaign and the army's heavy-handed response to it, such as the shooting dead of 26 civilians in Derry's "Bloody Sunday" incident in 1972, soured relations.

Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein Member of Parliament for Newry and Armagh and also a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, was one of the most vociferous critics of "British military occupation" of Nationalist heartlands like South Armagh.

Not surprisingly he welcomed the troops' departure: "The British military occupation of the six counties has blighted local communities for almost 40 years, not least in areas such as South Armagh. Not only was land stolen from local people, but also communities were harassed, and spy posts and other war apparatus blighted this area."

However, in a further sign of how much things have changed in Northern Ireland, Murphy recently asked the PSNI to crack down on anti-social behaviour in the fiercely Nationalist village of Crossmaglen, for decades a virtual no-go area for members of the security forces and overseen by a massive army watchtower.

Of course Unionists have a very different perspective on Operation Banner and its end. They saw the British Army, in the words of DUP defence spokesman and Lagan Valley MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, as having "defended our province against terrorism."

"The fact that the operation is being ended indicates that the army were successful in their objectives. I pay tribute to the resilient role which the army played in the defence of democracy," the Unionist MP said.

Donaldson paid tribute to the soldiers killed or wounded during the operation – "As a province we owe a great debt of gratitude to those soldiers" – and voiced caution about the future: "While paramilitarism, by-and-large, has been rid from the province there remains a dissident threat, and we would urge caution as the army withdraw so as security is not compromised."

Over 300,000 military personnel served in Northern Ireland in what was the British Army's longest ever operation. In total 651 British soldiers were killed by terrorist action and over 6,000 wounded. The last British soldier to die, Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, was shot by an IRA sniper in South Armagh in February 1997.