British Army Exits Northern Ireland

The British army's operation in Northern Ireland ends after nearly 40 years. Operation Banner was the army's longest continuous campaign, with more than 300,000 personnel. A garrison of 5,000 troops will remain in the province, but security will be in the hands of the police.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

At midnight last night, the British army's operation in Northern Ireland came to an end.

It was nearly 40 years ago that British troops entered the province in a campaign codenamed Operation Banner. Over the years, some 300,000 troops took part; now a garrison of just 5,000 remains. And security will be entirely in the hands of Northern Ireland's police.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: When the first British soldiers were deployed in August 1969 to help quell violence between the Protestant and Catholic communities, commanders believed they'd be in Northern Ireland for just a few weeks. In the end, the British army stayed 38 years and nearly 3,700 people were killed on both sides during that time.

Now, though, the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, has agreed to give up its weapons and the British army has pulled out, as a previously unthinkable political power-sharing deal has been established between the former enemies in the Northern Irish parliament. The chief constable of the new police service in Northern Ireland, Sir Hugh Orde, says the deal has made the army's presence unnecessary.

Sir HUGH STEPHEN ORDE (Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland): The world has moved on very quickly in Northern Ireland. We have been fortunate to be able to rely on additional resources. We don't need them anymore. The minute it suits us, it suits the military. They're very busy in other theaters of war and, of course, you know, this place is very different now.

GIFFORD: The difference is perhaps most evident in the small, very Catholic town of Crossmaglen in the province of South Armagh, near to the border with the Irish Republic. There are still signs beside the road in support of the IRA, but the British army base here has already closed and there are no more army checkpoints on the roads or army helicopters buzzing overhead.

Tom McKay is the founder of an organization called ROSA; that stands for the Regeneration of South Armagh. And he says the region formerly known by some as bandit country is getting a whole new beginning as a tourist destination.

Mr. TOM MCKAY (Founder, Regeneration of South Armagh): Within an hour south of South Armagh, you have at least 40 golf courses. Many lakes, such as (unintelligible) in South Armagh, where you can fish to your heart's content. And if you want a bit of sing-song, culture and (unintelligible), we have a number pubs - bars in the evening who will provide that as well.

(Soundbite of music)

GIFFORD: Crossmaglen, like so many parts of Northern Ireland, is benefiting from an influx of development money. There is new housing springing up, new stores, new bars and a new hotel. In one of the bars sits 50-year-old Pat Maknami(ph). He says he served six years in jail for what he calls Republican activities. He says the British troops acted as occupiers in Crossmaglen.

Mr. PAT MAKNAMI: A few young lads, young fellows on the street, they'd line them up against the wall and search them. I grew up when I was actually afraid to leave my own house after dark because I could be beaten up by the British army.

GIFFORD: Maknami naturally welcomes the departure of British troops. He still wants a united Ireland, but he says people in the town seem to realize that if it happens it will come about now through political means. In Protestant community across Northern Ireland there are similar feelings.

(Soundbite of marching band)

GIFFORD: A Protestant group marched through the center of Belfast yesterday, and divisions still run deep. A huge 40-foot wall separates the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road. But in a small restaurant on the Shankill Road, waitress Gwen Reid(ph) says a lot of Protestants admit it's right that the troops have gone.

Ms. GWEN REID: You know, it should have happened long ago. It took all this time for it to happen, but (unintelligible) just look after what's needed to be done.

GIFFORD: But there's still no love lost on the Shankill Road for former IRA leaders such as Jerry Adams. And Gwen's friend, Jacqueline Plankston(ph) is not so optimistic about the future.

Ms. JACQUELINE PLANKSTON: I don't think that they should have pulled out so many troops so quick. Well, Secretary Adams says they haven't gone away, you know, the IRA. I don't know. I just don't trust them. I think once one side doesn't get their own way, it will all start again.

GIFFORD: Such feelings show what decades of violence can do to people's trust. They also reflect a concern among some Protestants that their own politicians, in doing a political deal with the former IRA leaders, have sold them out, and that a united Ireland is now a certainty, albeit a distant one. The question that none of the doubters can answer, though, is what's the alternative. No one here wants to return to the violence of the past.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Belfast.

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British Troops End Mission in Northern Ireland

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After 38 years, the British army is standing down in Northern Ireland.

At midnight Tuesday, British troops will formally end their nearly four-decade mission to bolster security in Northern Ireland. All 5,000 soldiers remaining in the long-disputed corner of the United Kingdom will be committed to training for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere overseas.

The move is largely symbolic because British troops have not patrolled Belfast streets for about two years.

Analysts and ex-soldiers are debating whether British security forces defeated the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which waged a 1970-1997 campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force. But all sides agree the IRA's 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm has permitted British soldiers to beat their own retreat.

"We don't need them any more," said Chief Constable Hugh Orde, commander of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which increasingly can operate in most of the IRA's Roman Catholic power bases. For decades, police patrols in these areas required backup from troops.

The central goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 - a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party - was revived in May and has been operating harmoniously.

The other key goal, forging a police force supported on both sides of the community, is more than midway through a 10-year reform program. Catholic numbers in police ranks have more than doubled to 21 percent, and Britain hopes to transfer control of Northern Ireland security to local hands next year.

Two dissident IRA groups continue to plot attacks. But Orde and Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, who commands the new "peacetime" army garrison, say the dissidents will be defeated by gathering intelligence, not by deploying troops.

"There are still places where, sadly, a very small number of people are determined to wreck all that has been achieved," Orde said. "We have to be very mindful of that threat, but we can cope with that."

The British army once had 106 bases and 27,000 troops in Northern Ireland, and had 44 bases here only two years ago. It now has fewer than 20 bases and expects to have just 10 by April.

"The change in the political and security reality of Northern Ireland since ... 2005 has been even more dramatic than we could have hoped," said Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern.

The official end of Operation Banner - the codename used for the deployment of troops as peacekeepers 38 years ago - has triggered introspection throughout Britain and Ireland, where tens of thousands bear physical and psychological scars from a conflict that left 3,700 dead. Among those were 763 soldiers and 309 people killed by soldiers, chiefly Catholic civilians and IRA members.

Britain deployed troops in August 1969 to end Protestant mob attacks on Catholic homes in west Belfast and street battles between Catholic civilians and Protestant police in Londonderry, the second-largest city. Most soldiers, welcomed by the Catholic minority, expected to stay for only weeks.

Instead, Britain permitted Northern Ireland's Protestant government of the day to wield control over how British forces were used. A newly formed Provisional IRA began launching attacks

against police and, eventually, the army, killing its first soldier in 1971. Protestant leaders used the army to impose internment without trial almost exclusively against IRA suspects.

In 1972, the army committed its deadliest act, the Bloody Sunday massacre in which 13 unarmed Catholic demonstrators were shot to death in Londonderry. That year proved the deadliest for both the army and Northern Ireland as a whole: 470 slain, including 102 soldiers.

Sinn Fein justice spokesman Gerry Kelly, who led the IRA's first car bomb attacks on London in 1973, accused Britain of repeatedly spurning offers to negotiate.

"It could have come to a conclusion much sooner ... but the British political establishment kept pushing for a military victory that the British army itself knew was impossible to achieve," he

said.

Protestant leaders said the problem was prolonged by local hatreds, and the army's presence prevented a collapse into civil war.

"The reason the army came into Northern Ireland in the first place was because we couldn't find a way to live together, so let's not blame the army for what happened," said Protestant lawmaker

Jeffrey Donaldson. "We shouldn't forget their sacrifices. There were families who sent their boys over here to hold the line - and they came back in a wooden box."

Retired Col. Mike Dewar, a security analyst who served several tours in Northern Ireland, called the death toll in the early 1970s "horrific - a much higher casualty rate than what we have suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Intelligence agents eventually built a detailed picture of the IRA, and undercover army squads wiped out several IRA units in ambushes in the 1980s and early 1990s - a brutal strategy that Dewar credits with spurring the IRA's cease-fire.

"The IRA were clearly infiltrated. The pressure became unbearable for the IRA," Dewar said.

But a former soldier, John Moore, who was paralyzed from the waist down by an IRA bomb in 1981, said he felt no sense of triumph, only relief.

"There were no victories. Surely no one in their right mind wants to go back to those dark days," said Moore, who served in the Royal Green Jackets Regiment. "All it brought was pain, death and destruction."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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