01 April 2006

Operation Banner to End in North

Irish Abroad

**Via Newshound

By Brendan Anderson

OPERATION Banner, the code name for the British Army’s support role for the police in the North, is to come to an end next year. Lasting 35 years, the operation is the longest in British military history.

The end of Operation Banner, on August 1, 2007, marks another step in the painfully slow process of British demilitarization, or “normalization” as politicians prefer to call it. After that date, the British military presence in the North will have been returned to “peace-time” garrison levels.

News of the end of Operation Banner came as the British published the final timetable for the withdrawal of troops and the decommissioning of army bases and watch towers across the six northern counties. The move follows the destruction by the IRA of its arms dumps and the standing-down of its activists.

Following previous acts of normalization, there are now 9,000 British soldiers in the North, down from around 30,000 at the height of the Irish Troubles. That figure will be further reduced throughout the coming year after which 5,000 troops will be retained for garrison duties.

Among the bases still to be closed is the army barracks at Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, once believed to be the busiest heliport in Europe.

During the IRA campaign, soldiers were virtually prisoners in the base and could only venture out in large patrols. The roads were believed to have been too dangerous for military vehicles and all supplies were air-lifted into the base by helicopter.

Unionist politicians complained that the IRA was so active in the area that even the base’s garbage was taken out by chopper.

Residents of the strongly Republican village of Crossmaglen in south Armagh were heartened by the news Tuesday that soldiers are to be withdrawn from the local police station where they have been based for the duration of the troubles.

Tensions in the village were permanently high partly due to the take-over of a section of the Crossmaglen Rangers GAA pitch by the British Army. Media photographers often had a field day during matches which produced bizarre shots of a huge helicopter rising just yards from footballers who completely ignored the intrusion.

The five remaining watch towers in south Armagh, another source of irritation to residents, are due to be demolished within the next 16 months.

Mahon Road Barracks in Portadown, the base used by soldiers and police during the Drumcree Orange march stand-offs, is due to be closed by next January. Overall, the number of bases in the North will be reduced by August 2007 from around 40 to 14.

Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein MP for Newry and Armagh, welcomed Tuesday’s time-table and said demilitarization had been a key element of his party’s discussions with the British government.

“We have consistently called for the British government to produce a comprehensive strategy to achieve the demilitarization of our society. I welcomed the start that the British government made last year to the demilitarization process and I hope that today’s moves advance that process further. I now want to see the job completed as quickly as possible,” he said.

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