An announcement that British army personnel in the North will be reduced to 5,000 by July 2007 has been greeted with scepticism by nationalists.
There are currently more British soldiers stationed in the North than in Iraq. British armed forces minister Adam Ingram said the number of British bases in the North would be reduced to 14, in line with the same timetable.
Ingram said the plan for a phased reduction of troop numbers assumed “continuing maintenance of an enabling environment”. Twelve years on from the ceasefire announcement of the Provisional IRA, it is understood Ingram was referring to a perceived threat from hardline republicans.
The British minister said that over the next 16 months, the five remaining watchtowers in south Armagh will be demolished, and the British army will withdraw from most remaining bases where they are located alongside the police.
The announcement, which has been given a guarded welcome by Sinn Fein, promises that troops wiill be withdrawn from Crossmaglen, Newtownhamilton, Newtownbutler, Middletown and Keady police stations in County Armagh. Hilltop observation bases at Croslieve, Camlough Mountain and Jonesborough Hill are to be demolished over the next year, according to British officials.
In what is described as the final “normalisation” move in 2007, there are plans to close Drumadd barracks, Lisanaelly barracks in Omagh, Rose-mount observation post in Derry, Moscow Camp in Belfast, Harmony House in Lisburn, Masonic Base in Derry and Bessbrook Mill, which was once described as the busiest helicopter base in Europe.
The remaining “peacetime garrison” of 5,000 British troops will be consolidated in key bases, such as Thiepval barracks in Lisburn.
Conor Murphy, the Sinn Fein Newry and Armagh MP, said republicans had consistently “demanded that the British government remove its war apparatus from the North”. “It has always been a key element of our discussions with the British government. I have met both the British and Irish governments on this issue over a period of years,” he said.
“I welcomed the start that the British government made last year to the demilitarisation process, and I hope that these moves advance that process further. I now want to see the job completed as quickly as possible.”