13 January 2006

Garrison cuts on the way

Belfast Telegraph

Blueprint for Army's size in peacetime to be revealed

By Brian Rowan
13 January 2006

The final shape of the Army's "peacetime" garrison in Northern Ireland will be known in just a few weeks time.

A military plan, setting out the sequence for the closure of around two dozen bases, is almsot finalised.

But it is not yet clear if it will be published before the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) next reports on demilitarisation at the end of February.

Before then the four-man IMC will give its latest assessment on the IRA.

That report will be ready at the end of January, and comes six months after the IRA statement of July last year which formally ended its armed campaign.

The Army's response to that was to set a target date of August 2007 to end its long-running Operation Banner, how it describes its support role to the police.

Troop numbers will fall from 9,500 to 5,000 and the home-based battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment will be disbanded.

The Army GOC Sir Redmond Watt and his senior advisers at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn are talking to the Ministry of Defence.

It is now expected that within weeks the geographical shape of the "peacetime" garrison will be known.

"The military remain committed to supporting the PSNI for as long as is required," an Army source said. "Normalisation has been and remains predicated on an enabling environment."

Soldiers here are currently based at 40 sites but the Army is committed to having no more than 14 at the end of Operation Banner.

That means 26 "campaign" bases are to go.

In its February report, the IMC will measure demilitarisation progress against the latest assessment of the terrorist threat.

And, before then, the four commissioners will provide the British and Irish Governments with their latest findings on the IRA.

Based on intelligence assessments, that report is likely to say that the IRA structure is intact, but that the organisation has "fundamentally changed in its mode of operation".

To quote one source, things are "heading in the right direction".

On demilitarisation, unionists are concerned that such sweeping security changes are still being planned and have been particularly critical of the decision to stand down the Northern Ireland-based battalions of the RIR.

The Army hopes it will soon have details of the financial package that will be available to those soldiers and would hope to make this public around the same time that news emerges on the plans for base closures.

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