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U.K. unveils plan for slashing N. Ireland forces

Britain on Monday revealed a two-year plan for slashing its army garrison and base network in Northern Ireland in response to Irish Republican Army peace moves.
The British Army removes items from Suga
A British army soldier removes items from the Sugarloaf mountain watchtower in Camlock, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, on Friday.  Peter Muhly / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: news services

Britain on Monday revealed a two-year plan for slashing its army garrison and base network in Northern Ireland in response to Irish Republican Army peace moves.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said the IRA’s promise last week to renounce violence and resume disarmament, if fulfilled, meant Britain could resume and accelerate its military cutbacks.

He said Britain hoped to reduce its troop strength in the next two years to “a permanent military garrison of no more than 5,000 members” operating from 14 bases. That would be considered a normal level in United Kingdom terms, compared with today’s approximately 11,000 soldiers operating from more than three dozen bases and border outposts.

Hain said army engineers started Friday to dismantle or withdraw from three installations in South Armagh, an IRA power base along Northern Ireland’s border with the Irish Republic, where troops still use helicopters because of the risk of roadside ambush.

He said engineers this week would start to take down two of the most high-profile army observation posts: one atop the tallest apartment building overlooking Catholic west Belfast, another overlooking the hard-line Catholic Bogside district of Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city.

He said within the next few weeks, work would start on dismantling two more South Armagh observation posts, which since the mid-1980s have kept a high-tech eye on local roads and farms using powerful cameras and microphones.

All this work, he said, would be completed within the next months, while other goals — such as extending the areas where police could patrol without armored vehicles, and demolishing a watchtower in the Rosemount section of Londonderry — might be held back until the final four-month phase of the two-year plan.

IRA's commitment vital to cutback
Hain stressed, however, that all the proposed cuts would depend on the IRA’s progress in scrapping its weapons stockpiles and in avoiding any violent behavior.

He also warned that the continuing threat from IRA dissidents could require some installations earmarked for closure to remain longer than desired. Two dissident groups, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, oppose the IRA’s 1997 cease-fire and the IRA’s decision Thursday to declare that truce permanent.

Hain also held out the hope that, if the IRA offered impressive progress on disarmament and peaceful activity, Britain might achieve its military drawdown quicker.

“Provided the enabling environment is established and maintained, this program will be achievable within two years, though if the conditions are right to move more quickly in implementing elements of the plan, the government will do so,” Hain said.