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British Army's Exit Marks End of Era in N. Ireland

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British Army's Exit Marks End of Era in N. Ireland

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British Army's Exit Marks End of Era in N. Ireland

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

For almost 40 years, British troops have been a fixture on the streets of Northern Ireland. Well, that ends tonight when the British Army officially completes it's longest ever mission - supporting the police in Northern Ireland.

NPR's Rob Gifford joins us now from Belfast. Rob, this is an historic day. Is it actually being celebrated there in Northern Ireland?

ROB GIFFORD: Well, it's not actually, Michele. And the key word in your introduction there was the word officially because today - with the stroke of some administrators' pen - it will be officially ended, but it's in fact been going for sometime now. So, in a way, it's just putting the administrative final touch, retroactively almost, to something that's been going for several years.

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and when the Irish Republican Army committed to getting rid of its weapons a couple of years ago that's when the process began. So it's really been a very, very quiet day - no fanfares, no bugles, no last retreats here in Belfast.

NORRIS: But this is supposed to be an historic line of demarcation. What's supposed to be different going forward?

GIFFORD: Well, the difference is that in future Northern Ireland, the British troops in Northern Ireland will be no different from the British troops anywhere in the United Kingdom. There will be some based here, but they will not be here essentially to back up the police force, enduring the troubles as they happen over the last 40 years.

NORRIS: Rob, you mentioned the troubled history over the past 40 years, could you give us a sense of what's happened there in Northern Ireland during this 38-year deployment?

GIFFORD: Well, it has been very troubled indeed. The British military came in the summer of 1969 to deal with intercommunal violence here. And in fact, initially, they were welcomed. The British troops were welcomed by the Republican, largely Catholic minority. But then, things turned bad. Hostility grew. Of course, you had some of the huge events during the 1970s so called Bloody Sunday when 13 unarmed protesters were shot by British troops. There were major atrocities against British troops later in the 1970s and in the '80s. And in return, British troops killed many, many members of the IRA.

NORRIS: You've recently had a chance to visit two centers within these - the sectarian divide. Are things actually more normal now?

GIFFORD: That's right. I've just been drinking Guinness in a pub on the Shankill Road here in Belfast in the protestant hot lands here in Belfast. And yesterday, I was down in South Armagh, near the border with the Republic of Ireland, which is really the Republican Catholic stronghold. I think it's fair to say in both areas there is a sort of division of opinion. The moderates feel this is fantastic. It's wonderful. It is peace breaking out. But there are still people who are angry and rather mistrustful. And I suppose after the last 40 years, what we've seen here, I suppose that's inevitable. And I think that's what's going to take the time is for the trust to build back up between the doubters on both sides.

NORRIS: Do you get a sense of a page has turned?

GIFFORD: Oh, I think so. You know, I you walk up the Falls Road here, the Catholic heartland, or the Shankill Road in Belfast, it's quite extraordinary. You're walking into pubs and talking to people who have done time in jail for murder, who have really been deeply involved in the fighting who are now saying I'm not doing that anymore. I'm just - I want my children to grow up in peace. There's no doubt that a page has turned. And there is really a lot of optimism here despite the concerns that some still have.

NORRIS: Rob, thank you very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you very much, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Rob Gifford speaking to us from Belfast.

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