British soldiers pull out of south Armagh
British soldiers pull out of south Armagh

The last British soldiers pulled out of south Armagh at the weekend.

While five thousand troops remain stationed elsewhere in the North, the last 20 soldiers have left the infamous Bessbrook base in the border area, according to British officials.

The head of the British garrison in Ireland, General Nick Parker, said the threat from republican armed groups was “not one meriting an army”.

“If I look at the reality the dissidents are not a worthy target for a military force. They do not represent the sort of threat which the military infrastructure which has been built up for Operation Banner should be used for.”

Operation Banner was the name for the army’s role supporting the RUC/PSNI police.

Parker said the closure of Bessbrook was “the last big project in the normalisation plan”, and that soon only ten British Army bases will remain on Irish soil.

The last helicopter flight from what was once one of the busiest heli-ports in Europe happened on Friday, a fact welcomed by local residents.

The 19th century model village, which became home to the British army and had every entrance blocked by checkpoints, is where the last British soldier to be killed in the conflict was shot dead, in 1997.

Sinn Féin Newry and Armagh MP Conor Murphy welcomed the departure from Bessbrook.

The regional development minister said: “This is obviously welcome news for the community of south Armagh who have had to live under British military occupation for the past 30 years.

“Sinn Féin made the issue of demilitarising communities like south Armagh a central part of the political negotiations. We are happy we have now arrived at this point.”

Kevin Murphy of the local 32 County Sovereignty Movement in South Armagh denied claims that the troops’ departure was a vindication for Sinn Féins peace strategy or a victory for Irish republicanism.

“Rather it is a further victory for British governmental policy in Ireland - a policy which is condemning further generations to conflict,” he said.

Murphy said a long-standing British policy of normalisation was now being implemented “as a result of the capitulation and surrender of the provisional movement.

“Despite their confidence we in the 32 County Sovereignty Movement are in no doubt that republican resistance will force them to once again drop their facade of normality and expose the occupation for what it is.”

Meanwhile, questions remain over what will happen to the buildings. There were concerns that the mill occupied by the British Army will be destroyed when it is vacated.

The mill was taken over in the 1970s and some of its original features, such as tall chimneys, were removed to clear a flight path for helicopters.

The mill once provided almost all the area’s employment, at one point employing 3,000 people making linen regarded as some of the finest in the world.

It was built from granite drawn from the region and featured a fine stained-glass window in the engine room.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News