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British army stands down in Northern Ireland

The army watchtowers have gone and British soldiers no longer search homes looking for wanted men but for many in Northern Ireland’s border towns the trauma of conflict still burns.
Sinn Fein Councillor Terry Hearty and Maria Caraher pose for the camera in the Sinn Fein office in the village of Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein Councillor Terry Hearty and Maria Caraher, whose brother Fergal was killed by British troops in disputed circumstances, sit Monday in the Sinn Fein office in the village of Crossmaglen, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.Andrew Paton / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

The army watchtowers have gone and British soldiers no longer search homes looking for wanted men but for many in Northern Ireland’s border towns the trauma of conflict still burns.

The British army ends on Tuesday its 38-year role supporting police in Northern Ireland, its longest military operation ever.

In Crossmaglen, a heartland for Irish nationalists in the British-ruled province who want a united Ireland, residents are still dealing with the legacy of fierce clashes between Republican gunmen and British forces.

“The British army ran a war through this area and the people were at the rough end of it,” said Terry Hearty, a local councilor with Sinn Fein, political ally of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerrilla group.

British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 to help quell unrest over civil rights that erupted between the majority Protestant population — who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom — and local Catholics.

About 3,600 people were killed over the next three decades known as 'The Troubles.'

Violence ends, but scars remain
Violence largely ended with an IRA cease-fire in 1997 and in May of this year politicians from both sides of the sectarian divide entered into a new power-sharing government. But for many in the region, scars have yet to heal.

“It was difficult for us to live with years of harassment from the British army and the constant searches. I am glad they have gone,” said Naoise Short, 55, a hardware store owner.

Traveling overland in South Armagh during the 1970s became so dangerous the British army began using helicopters to transport troops and supply its bases. It became known as ”Bandit Country” because of the levels of lawlessness.

Many homes in the area close to the Republic of Ireland fly the Irish tricolor flag and monuments honor the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade, one of the province’s deadliest guerrilla units.

A woman and girl walk past a Republican memorial to residents of South Armagh who died during the troubles in Crossmaglen, Northern Ireland
A woman pushes a child past a Republican memorial to residents of South Armagh who died during the troubles, in the village of Crossmaglen, County Armagh, Northern Ireland July 30, 2007. The army watchtowers have gone and British soldiers no longer search homes looking for wanted men but for many in Northern Ireland's border towns the trauma of conflict still burns. The British army ends on Tuesday its 38-year role supporting police in Northern Ireland, its longest military operation ever.Andrew Paton / X80002

The end of military operations means the British Army will now have only a “peacetime garrison” where, as in other parts of the UK, troops will now be trained for deployment to world trouble spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Troops in Northern Ireland will number no more than 5,000, compared with 27,000 at the height of the conflict in 1972.

As a sign of the changes here, police who once patrolled in armored vehicles with army escorts are now seen in regular squad cars or on bikes. They also travel to other hot spots around the world to provide training to local forces.

Mistrust
But a mistrust of the Protestant-dominated police force remains in places such as Crossmaglen. Military escorts for police officers in the area only ended last month.

Police area commander Chief Inspector Sam Cordner said progress was being made.

“It is all about engagement and building on relationships, and one thing will feed the other,” he told Reuters at his office in a heavily fortified police station in nearby Newry.

“We do have small pockets of dissident activity which, if not properly controlled, could cause us damage,” he said. “I think we are well equipped to deal with that.”

Despite reservations, many hope a “peace dividend” will help develop tourism in an area famed for rolling countryside and historical landmarks including pre-Christian settlements. It is also the ecclesiastical capital of the island of Ireland.

“I see people enjoying the benefits of the peace process over the last few years,” said 71-year-old Tom McKay. “I see no reason for us to go back to what was before.”

For Maria Caraher, 38, whose brother Fergal was shot dead by British troops in disputed circumstances, moving on will not be so easy. “What happened will be with us for the rest of our lives,” she said.