The British Army will cease to provide military support to Crown force policing operations in the Six Counties from midnight.

‘Operation Banner’, the name given to the mobilisation of troops in Belfast in 1969 to support the then RUC police, ends today.

Although a permanent British military garrison will remain stationed in the North, the move is being seen as publicly bringing an end to a military campaign in which 763 members of British forces died.

The last soldier to die was Stephen Restorick, who was shot by a sniper in south Armagh in February 1997.

British soldiers will remain stationed across the North in preparation for possible deployment in “extreme cases of public disorder” -- as well as military functions such as bomb disposal operations -- but not for policing functions.

The occupying force will remain at around 5,000, described by British military spin-doctors as a “normal peacetime garrison”.

Numbers of British military personnel in Ireland have been steadily dropping since August 1st, 2005 as the requirements of their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased.

First deployed on the streets of Derry on August 14 1969, the move was the British government’s first direct military intervention in Ireland since partition.

At its peak in 1972, the combined British armed forces presence in Ireland was some 27,000.

Overall some 300,000 British military personnel have been in Ireland since the recent conflict began, stationed at more than 100 army bases. At the height of the conflict, there were 15 battalions in Belfast alone.

Since then, the number of bases has been reduced and the hilltop army posts along the south Armagh Border have been dismantled. However, there are still 17 heavily-fortified military bases housing troops across the North.

Sinn Féin has welcomed confirmation of what it described as the end of “the almost 40-year British military occupation of the Six Counties”.

Newry and Armagh MP Conor Murphy said: “Not only was land stolen from local people, but communities were harassed and spy posts and other war apparatus blighted this area.”

A British Army spokeseman was dismissive, saying: “We are content for Conor Murphy to say whatever he needs to say. Actually we have worked with Sinn Féin to get out of south Armagh.”

He added: “I will give him respect for his view because he is part of the political process.”

Republicans opposed to Sinn Féin’s political strategy challenged the establishment’s interpretation of the announcement.

Richard Walsh, a Derry based spokesman for the Republican Prisoners Action Group, pointed out that British troops could still be deployed at a moment’s notice.

“They say it (Operation Banner) is drawing to an end, but there will still be a permanent garrison, and they’re only a helicopter’s flight away,” he said.

“The fact is that British policy has effectively succeeded in that the RUC/PSNI are able to police without the support of the British Army.

“It’s by no means a step forward when you have the Provisionals openly collaborating with the British Crown Forces.”

But Sinn Féin said its negotations had helped to end British military patrols and spying operations.

“We have had British troops and other Crown Forces on the ground now into a second generation, and it was an oppressive presence,” said Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly.

“People were interned and its now accepted that the majority of them were innocent.

“Before they had intelligence, internment was being used as a weapon against nationalists and Catholic people.

“Then in North Belfast, for 25 years the Army were on top of the flats on the New Lodge Road.

“You had the mother of Peter McBride, who was shot dead by two Scots Guards in 1992, living under an Army post where she had to watch the regiment going up and down every day.

“The harassment was so in your face. These are emotive words, but it was oppressive in a very personal way.

“That’s the type of thing that was put under the banner of counter-insurgency. But when you look back at it now it was the simple repetition of tactics that were used by the British Army in every single arena in the world they went into as a colonial power.

“It was a clever move to try and suppress a particular section of our community who were Irish republicans. But it also affected people who were simply Catholic nationalists.”

The military tactics also helped persuade many republicans to join the IRA’s armed struggle, Mr Kelly added.

“They helped to recruit into the organisation by their actions.”

* Two hoax bombs were uncovered in Derry city centre last week as republican militants continued a protest campaign against the political process.

The city centre was brought to a standstill as devices were discovered at the Tower Hotel and the general post office.

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