03 April 2006

Britain Dismantles N. Ireland Watchtowers

CBS News

DUBLIN, Ireland, Apr. 3, 2006

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(AP) The British army began dismantling its last five watchtowers along the Northern Ireland border Monday, a long-awaited move in response to the Irish Republican Army's decision last year to disarm. (Click to view photo)

Soldiers from the Royal Engineers Regiment landed by helicopter on three hilltops in South Armagh, a traditional IRA power base midway between Belfast and Dublin, to begin tearing apart the heavily armored watchtowers.

Three of the high-tech fortifications are on Jonesborough Hill, Northern Ireland territory that juts into the Republic of Ireland, while the two others are atop other South Armagh hills.

Britain in the mid-1980s constructed a network of watchtowers to monitor IRA activities in South Armagh, where troops and police for decades had to travel by helicopter because of the risk of roadside bombs.

South Armagh's overwhelmingly Roman Catholic residents, who bitterly resent the watchtowers' ability to eavesdrop on local communities, have demanded their demolition ever since the IRA began observing lengthy cease-fires in 1994. The army has dismantled eight other observation posts in the area since December 1999 as part of the peace process.

In a statement, British army headquarters in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, said the five watchtowers ceased operation as surveillance posts on Saturday. It said the posts' major physical feature _ an armored pillbox with blast-proof glass windows and towers with cameras and microphones _ would be airlifted off each hill by Chinook helicopters.

The Irish government welcomed the latest British moves. Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said they amounted to "yet another tangible demonstration of the transformed security situation in Northern Ireland, and of the benefits it brings to everyone."

"For years these installations dominated the landscape of South Armagh," said Ahern, whose parliamentary district lies just across the border in the town of Dundalk. "Their removal, as part of an ongoing process of security normalization, is an important step in giving a fresh start to these communities in moving away from the shadow of conflict and toward an open and prosperous future."

But reflecting Northern Ireland's pervasive divisions, leaders of the province's British Protestant majority decried the cutbacks as foolish, while South Armagh's Catholic politicians complained that Britain should have torn down the lookout posts sooner _ and was not nearly doing enough.

"No one in the area will be sad to see the back of these intrusive eyesores," said Dominic Bradley, a representative of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which represents moderate Catholic opinion.

"There is now an onus on the British government to continue with all aspects of the normalization process, including an end to joint army-police patrols, intrusive and unnecessary helicopter flights, and the fortified nature of many police stations. There is no valid reason why this process cannot be completed in its entirety in a rapid fashion."

Conor Murphy, South Armagh's senior official from Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, said locals suspected that British troops would replace their listening posts with more covert forms of spying and surveillance.

He cited documents seized by Sinn Fein officials in February that suggested British spying on South Armagh homes and a local sports club.

"Actions such as these only serve to increase local anger," he said.

But the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents most Protestants, pointed out that South Armagh remained a popular place for cross-border smuggling of fuel and cigarettes _ a trade allegedly overseen by the area's IRA commander.

"This move is foolish in the extreme," Democratic Unionist official Arlene Foster said. "At a time when criminality is rampant along our border, a commonsense approach would dictate that security should be maintained rather than scaled down."

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