British war machine in overdrive
BY DEIRDRE FEEHAN
``The level of British military activity throughout the Six Counties is reaching an all time high'', says Sinn Féin Assembly member for South Armagh, Conor Murphy.
Across the Six Counties, but particularly in border areas, the dramatic increase in British foot patrols, helicopter flights and searches has led Sinn Féin representatives to accuse the crown forces of harassment.
d only as recently as Tuesday 11 April, this harassment has lead to the physical abuse of nationalists when a joint RUC/British army patrol crossed the border into County Louth and assaulted a local man.
The RUC raided the homes of two republicans in the Markets area of Belfast on Tuesday 11 April. The men were held under house arrest while the raids were on going, they were both arrested when the raids ended. Both men were released the following day. South Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Séan Hayes said that after arresting the two men, ``the RUC gave the impression to the media that items had been taken away for forensic examination, but the whole episode was sectarian harassment at its height.
``It is ironic that the RUC were forced to release these men on the same day they were being awarded by Elizabeth Windsor. The RUC doesn't need rewarding, it needs disbanding.''
Over the past number of weeks the degree of British military activity in South Armagh has caused outrage among nationalists and republicans. Local people believe that the British are using the peace process to strengthen their presence in an area where before the 1994 IRA cessation, their movements were severely limited.
Assembly member Conor Murphy's constituency office has been inundated with reports of British Army and RUC harrasment.
Helicopter activity, in particular, has increased dramatically over the last number of weeks. Incidents have been reported of helicopters swooping so low over cars that the military pilots were clearly visible.
The small village of Bessbrook, with the most heavily fortified military base in Western Europe, was described by locals as being ``completely saturated'' for two days with a vast increase in helicopter flights to and from the base. The Bessbrook base services the five joint British Army/RUC barracks and the 33 lookout posts doted around South Armagh. Refurbishment of these barracks and lookout posts, together with the addition of extra surveillance and infrared cameras is continuous.
Conor Murphy maintains that the number of British Army and RUC members deployed in South Armagh has increased by 75%, since the renewed IRA cessation in 1997.
Murphy described the increase in military activities as ``blatantly provocative'' and said the British Army are using South Armagh as a military training ground.
``Immediate moves on demilitarisation are required now and people on the ground must see these being translated into action,'' he said. ``These sorts of patrols must cease, and the military apparatus including the spy posts and watch towers must be dismantled. These are not simply demands; they are obligations under the Good Friday Agreement.''
Residents in the Craigavon estate of Ardowen last week described how they were living ``under siege'' while a massive RUC and British Army search operation took place.
Sinn Féin Upper Bann Assembly member Dara O'Hagan said that since 16 March right through to April residents had been contacting human rights organisation the Pat Finucane Centre after the crown forces saturated Meadowbrook, Drumbeg and Ardowen for more than a week.
``It is unusual for the area to be subjected to such a high saturation and it's increasing tension,'' she said. ``People are being subjected to harassment by the RUC and RIR. It seems to be focusing on young people. They are being stopped and searched on foot and in cars.''
O'Hagan said that while the British government talked about demilitarisation, it certainly wasn't happening in Craigavon.
Locals have accused members of the crown forces, the RIR in particular, of harassing and intimidating school children on their way to and from school.
One mother was cleaning her windows when a mobile RIR patrol slowed to taunt her two sons, aged four and five, with sectarian taunts. She said she was called a ``fucking fenian whore'' by one of the soldiers. She said that the soldier then told her she wouldn't be cleaning her windows next time, because she wouldn't have any to clean.
Speaking to An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin Councillor Francie Murray said: ``Through the recent months there has been a campaign of daily harassment directed towards the residents of the Meadowbrook, Drumbeg and Ardowen estates in Craigavon from British forces.
A British Army helicopter crashed in Moneyglass, near Toomebridge, on Friday 7 April.
trim Northwest Councillor Pauline Davey-Kennedy told An Phoblacht: ``We have received a number of complaints in recent weeks about the increase in helicopter activity in Antrim, particularly about late night flights and extremely low flight paths.
``The crash landing of a British Army helicopter on Friday night was, given this level of British military activity, inevitable. It is only a question of time before people are killed.
``This month has seen an accident involving a British Army helicopter in Mullaghbawn in South Armagh. The Celtic League also released research showing that the British military establishment was aware that many of its Lynx helicopters still have safety faults.''
Addressing the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Newry/Armagh Assembly member Pat McNamee said that the mountains and hilltops of South Armagh, ``a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, are blighted by 31 watch towers''.
``These are ugly constructions which are bristling with cameras and listening devices and they are an oppressive intrusion into the lives of people in the area'', he said.
``The noise and intrusions of intense helicopter activity is oppressive to the local population and causes serious financial hardship for farmers in the area. Over 40,000 animals have been killed as a result of low flying helicopters in the area since 1994, including cattle, sheep and poultry.
``There are also major concerns about the threat to people's health from the intense use of the infrared and other equipment which festoon these posts. There is also serious concern about the incidence of cancers and other related conditions in the South Armagh area over the last number of years.''
McNamee said that there is a responsibility on the British government to publish a programme for demilitarisation under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and that programme should be implemented without further delay.