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At the crossroads of peace

Like their Protestant neighbors in the area, Catholic nationalists here have also paid a heavy price in loss of life over the past 30 years. By Laura Haydon.
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The frequent roadblocks, security checks and deafening helicopter activity around this border town are a constant reminder of the decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Like their Protestant neighbors, Catholic nationalists here have paid a heavy price in loss of life over the past 30 years. They have also had to endure a British military presence that has intruded upon their day-to-day lives.

South Armagh was and remains the most heavily militarized area in Northern Ireland. While the British military has shut down some installations and pulled out troops, a lighter security presence still guards against the very real threat from rogue anti-British paramilitaries such as the Real IRA, the group responsible for the 1998 Omagh bomb that killed 29 and almost brought to a halt the nascent peace process.

The rugged beauty of the mountains surrounding Crossmaglen is marred by British army installations that sit atop the peaks, casting shadows over the area.

The Real IRA is believed to have bases just over the border from Crossmaglen in the Republic of Ireland. Disarming paramilitary groups like the Real IRA and ending the British army presence in areas like Crossmaglen are at the heart of current discussions among the Northern Ireland political parties and the British and Irish governments — and crucial to the survival of the peace process.

Speculation is rife over the whereabouts of secret IRA weapons depots, but nobody can say with certainty where they are located. Observers believe that a deal will eventually be struck in which Britain dismantles at least five of its 14 observation posts in South Armagh in exchange for progress on IRA disarmament.

Campaigning for peace

Toni Carragher is secretary of the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Association, a group that is campaigning for the removal of British military installations in South Armagh. Local Catholics speak of police and army foot patrols peering through their children’s classroom windows and setting up checkpoints outside schools, and of ordinary people being searched while running their daily errands.

Despite voting overwhelming for the Good Friday agreement in the 1998 referendum on peace in Northern Ireland, the mainly Catholic people of South Armagh have, according to Carragher, seen an increase in military activity in their area. “The level of stopping and searching has increased dramatically and the helicopter activity is persistent,” she said.

“Nothing has changed. People here do question what they said ‘yes’ to,” she said, referring to the overwhelming public support for the peace referendum.

Carragher, a Catholic who moved to South Armagh 10 years ago when she married a local farmer, believes efforts to develop the region as a tourist destination are doomed unless the British army withdraws. “Personally, I feel the border should not be there, and I would long for the day that it is no longer there and this country is free of the British occupation.”