Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Irish Eyes Are Smiling As Britain Slashes Troops In Northern Ireland

Britain revealed a two-year plan Monday for slashing its army garrison and base network to peacetime levels in Northern Ireland in a dramatic, detailed response to Irish Republican Army peace moves.
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said the IRA's promise last week to renounce violence and resume disarmament, if fulfilled, meant Britain could accelerate its military cutbacks that were begun seven years ago. In the most controversial part of the plan, three locally recruited and overwhelmingly Protestant ``home service'' battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment will be disbanded by August 2007. Britain had repeatedly postponed their disbanding because of bitter opposition within the province's British Protestant majority. In a letter to his approximately 11,000 troops and thousands of civilian staff in Northern Ireland, Lt. Gen. Redmond Watt said if the IRA threat does disappear as billed, then Northern Ireland's police no longer will require regular military backup. ``There will be no military requirement for the home service battalions, and they will disband,'' he wrote. Protestant leaders denounced the plans as a reckless capitulation to the IRA, which killed 182 members of the locally recruited battalions from 1971 to 1994 - often when the soldiers were off duty and vulnerable in their private businesses, vehicles or homes. ``I'm absolutely disgusted and very, very angry. This is pure and absolute appeasement,'' said David Burnside of the Ulster Unionist Party, who predicted that a new generation of IRA activists would take advantage of weakened security. ``The IRA have been fought to a standstill by the forces of law and order, but they always return.'' Catholics cheered the decision, reflecting their long-standing hatred of the overwhelmingly Protestant battalions.
Of the approximately 60,000 people who served in the battalions, a few dozen were convicted and imprisoned for killing Catholics or helping illegal Protestant groups to commit such violence, sometimes by leaking army dossiers on IRA suspects. Hain said Britain hoped to reduce its total troop strength in the next two years to ``a permanent military garrison of no more than 5,000 members'' operating from 14 bases, a normal level in United Kingdom terms. Watt said the Northern Ireland-based troops would be available for deployment worldwide, reflecting the current heavy demands Britain faces with its Iraq commitments. Army engineers began Friday to dismantle or withdraw from three installations in South Armagh, an IRA power base along Northern Ireland's border with the Irish Republic, where troops still use helicopters rather than vehicles because of the risk of a roadside ambush. Hain and Watt said engineers this week also would start to take down four of the most high-profile army observation posts: one atop the tallest apartment building overlooking Catholic west Belfast, another overlooking the hard-line Catholic Bogside district of Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second-largest city, and two others in South Armagh. The observation posts for decades have kept a high-tech eye on the IRA's host Catholic communities using powerful cameras and microphones. They have fueled a sense of ``Big Brother'' fears, with locals sometimes turning up the volume on their radios or TVs to mask their conversations. Hain said other goals - such as extending the areas where police could patrol without armored vehicles - might be held back until the final four-month phase of the two-year plan. Hain stressed that all the proposed cuts would depend on the IRA's progress in scrapping its weapons stockpiles and avoiding violent behavior.