Packing up their Troubles


Withdrawal of troops from south Armagh is an acid test for policing normalisation, writes Tom Clonan, as he watches the British army return its hilltop posts to nature.

The quaint village of Bessbrook, with its neat stone cottages and carefully tended gardens, nestles snugly among the drumlins and hills of south Armagh. Its dominant feature is Bessbrook Mill, currently the British army's main base in south Armagh.

Historical records trace the ownership of Bessbrook Mill to Sir Toby Caulfield as far back as 1620. In 1845, it was purchased by John Cribb Richardson, a Quaker who built the picturesque town of Bessbrook around the mill as the first "model" village in Ireland or Britain - predating by 30 years the famous Bourneville model village built by the Cadbury family near Birmingham.

Richardson's ideal for Bessbrook was to revolve around the concept of the "three Ps" - no public house, no pawn shop and no police. Tragically, a century later Bessbrook would find itself at the centre of Northern Ireland's so-called "murder triangle" in south Armagh - a far cry from Richardson's original Utopian vision for the village.

Between 1969 and 1998, 53 police constables from the RUC were killed in south Armagh by Republicans. In addition, 119 soldiers from the British army were killed in the county during the same period - almost exactly the same number as have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years.

In 1970 Bessbrook Mill was requisitioned by the British army as a base for its operations in south Armagh. At the height of the Troubles, there were almost 3,000 British troops based between Bessbrook, Crossmaglen and Newtownhamilton. With a population of just 23,000, this made south Armagh one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world with an astonishing ratio of over one armed soldier per eight civilians.

This presence, however, failed to prevent further killing and sectarian outrages, such as the murder of five Protestants in Newtownhamilton Orange Lodge in September 1975 and the infamous Kingsmill Massacre of January 1976, in which 10 Protestant textile workers were shot by Republican elements near Bessbrook.

In 1986, the British army attempted to further frustrate the activities of the IRA's South Armagh Brigade by erecting a series of hilltop observation posts (OPs) atop the hills and drumlins straddling the Border with the Republic. This series of OPs - equipped with night-vision equipment, long-range cameras and listening devices - was designed to finally tame the so-called "bandit country" of south Armagh.

The OPs had some impact on the IRA campaign in the area. However, as the wider political situation began to alter, the towers themselves became symbolic of what many republicans regarded as a heavy-handed, oppressive and intrusive military occupation of the area. On February 12th, 1997, Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was shot in the head by an IRA sniper team as he manned the vehicle checkpoint outside Bessbrook Mill. He was the last British soldier to die in Northern Ireland.

Following the announcement of the IRA's final ceasefire in July 1997 and the signing of the Belfast Agreement in April 1998, the British army began to dismantle its 13 OPs in the south Armagh area in December 1999. The last five towers, on Camlough Mountain, Jonesborough Hill and Croslieve Hill, are in the final phases of demolition and removal. Within weeks, the physical and political topography of south Armagh will have changed utterly.

Gone will be the British army observation towers that have been highly charged totemic features on the Armagh skyline for the past two decades. Arriving will be the first patrols - in ordinary police vehicles - of the PSNI. The coming months in south Armagh will be an acid test of the process of security "normalisation" for Northern Ireland. Bessbrook Mill will close as a British army base and along with it will close a significant chapter in British military history.

AT THE END of the newly constructed M1 motorway north of Dundalk, the road narrows to close the final few miles to the Border with Northern Ireland. A few kilometres past the Ravensdale hotel at the Border crossing point, one can clearly see in the distance an Irish Tricolour defiantly planted on top of what used to be the British army observation post adjacent to the former permanent vehicle checkpoint outside Newry.

Driving past the site of the old checkpoint, there is little evidence to be seen of the British army's elaborate concrete and steel position that once dominated this stretch of road. It is hard to imagine the permanent complex of watchtowers, ramps, blast walls and cameras that once surrounded the checkpoint here. The adjacent hill - which accommodated the OP overlooking the position - has returned to nature and is overgrown with grass and scrub.

At the height of the Troubles, Bessbrook Mill was the busiest heliport in the world, with British army helicopter flights in and out of the base every 15 minutes or so, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I am met at the base by Maj Laurence Bedford, commander of C Company and Col Wayne Harber, deputy commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade, based in Thiepval Barracks in Belfast.

The 39th Infantry Brigade is responsible for the military security of the eastern half of the six counties of Northern Ireland, including the major population centres of Belfast and its surrounds, and the counties of Antrim, Down and Armagh. Col Harber explains that the number of British army troops in Northern Ireland has dwindled from a peak of 27,000 during the Troubles to approximately 8,000 soldiers today. "We plan to further reduce to a total of less than 5,000 military personnel in Northern Ireland by the 1st of August 2007."

Col Harber recalls previous service in Northern Ireland in 1988 when he was based in south Armagh. "At certain points then," he says, "we would have had as many as, say, 2,500 troops here in south Armagh." Maj Bedford says that the total number of British troops now stationed in the area, between Crossmaglen, Newtownhamilton and Bessbrook, is less than 100.

In addition to this dramatic reduction in troop numbers, the British army is slowly but surely dismantling and removing its significant military infrastructure in the south Armagh area. The radical transformation of the former vehicle checkpoint outside Newry, says Col Harber, "epitomises our plan for south Armagh - to get rid of all of the concrete, the towers and the wire. We want to restore it to its former status as countryside. Beautiful countryside - plain and simple."

Col Harber introduces me to Capt John Baxter, of the 25th Royal Engineer Regiment, who is responsible for returning the sites of the former watchtowers to their original state as "green-grass" locations. He outlines in detail the ongoing process of consultation between the British army and the landowners - mostly farmers - as to the restoration and reclamation of the remaining OP sites. He also describes the level of environmental oversight provided by independent civilian contractors such as Enviros, who carry out compulsory land quality assessments to ensure there is no residual contamination or pollution of the former military sites.

When asked if there is any chemical or radioactive contamination of the sites from surveillance equipment that may have been housed in the observation posts, Baxter replies, "No, there is no radioactive contamination at the sites. That's a bit of a myth. Besides, with health and safety for our own troops and the community being our primary concern, we wouldn't contemplate such a scenario."

The main logistics problem confronting Capt Baxter and the engineers of 25 RER is the "no-drive" line that separates this part of south Armagh from the remainder of Northern Ireland. Col Harber explains that for ongoing security reasons and other sensitivities, British troops do not travel by road south of the A25 running west to east from Newtownhamilton to Newry. "Therefore," he says, "the only way toget to the observation posts is by air. We've got to airlift our engineer crews in and airlift everything out, every porta-cabin, every nail, screw, piece of concrete - every pebble of gravel has got to be airlifted out."

Capt Baxter says they have resorted to using specialised RAF Chinook helicopters with under-slung eight- to 10-ton containers to remove the remaining OPs. "The 25 RER have so far supervised over 1,200 such flights from the various sites and have removed over 4,500 tons of material," he says.

Col Harber, Maj Bedford and Capt Baxter describe the manner in which their troops - many of whom are just home from a six-month tour of duty in Basra and Baghdad in Iraq - find Northern Ireland to be a busy but peaceful posting.

"A lot of the troops here go surfing along the coast," says Maj Bedford. "The amenities here are second to none." Col Harber makes the point that such activities would have been unthinkable in the 1990s or 1980s due to the security situation. "The security situation here, like the landscape, has been transformed."

Col Harber points to the large three-dimensional cloth model of south Armagh that dominates Bessbrook Mill's briefing room. The detailed scale model - once used for planning military operations - shows every building, outhouse and unapproved road or laneway in the south Armagh area. "This will be going to a museum soon," he says. "This is military history in the making."

Col Harber accompanies me on board a British Air Corps Lynx helicopter to view the observation towers from the air. The pilots are armed and carry SA-80 assault rifles strapped to the rear of their seats. The 7.62 machine gun mounted at the door of the helicopter is fully loaded with the conventional mix of standard and tracer ammunition. The threat assessment is deemed low in south Armagh however, and throughout the flight, the door gunner keeps the side door of the aircraft closed and does not man the weapon.

Passing between the drumlins, the pilots do a sweep of the observation tower sites. They are indistinguishable from the surrounding hills. Col Harber later explains to me that they had considered using natural yoghurt "to promote the growth of verdi gris, moss and lichen". However, such action would appear not to have proven necessary due to the wet climate and rapid natural growth.

DESCENDING TO "Golf Four Zero" (G40), the observation post at Croslieve Hill, one is immediately struck by the commanding fields of vision afforded by the position. One is also struck by the outstanding natural beauty of south Armagh and the spectacular views south and east towards Co Louth and the Irish Sea. All of the British army officers I speak to remark on the tourism potential of the area and the opportunities for hill-walking for example, "once the army packs up and leaves".

Staff Sgt Chris Button of 25 RER explains how they are now engaged in the unpleasant task of having to remove the sewage system from the base and decant and bottle, in large plastic containers, their own waste for airlift off the hilltop. The engineers are also in the process of removing, by hand, every pebble and piece of gravel off the hilltop - literally leaving no stone unturned.

An RAF Chinook helicopter hovers precariously - buffeted by strong winds - over the hilltop as the engineers hook the large metal bins to the underside of the aircraft. The Chinooks cross the Irish Sea every morning from Odiham RAF base in Hampshire to conduct the airlifts. "Most of our Chinooks are in Iraq and Afghanistan," observes Col Harber.

The troops on G40 and at Bessbrook Mill are a mixture of young soldiers from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Fiji, South Africa and Ghana. Most would have been in primary school when the IRA declared its ceasefire in 1997. When I ask what they think of Ireland, most express a keen interest in going to Dublin to visit Temple Bar - aunthinkable scenario in the grim decades of the 1970s and 1980s. As I leave Bessbrook Mill, Col Harber hints that the British army now regards its role in Northern Ireland as very much secondary to that of the PSNI. "It's up to them now," he says, "they need to get out and about among the neighbourhoods in their jam sandwiches - just like community police forces everywhere else. The British army has a lot of interests globally now," he adds.

After a day of briefings and over-flights, I come away with the impression that the two groups most anxious to see the British army leave south Armagh are Sinn Féin - and the British army itself. When that happens, observation posts Romeo One Three through to Romeo Two One and Golf Four Zero will return to the more poetic appellations of Camlough, Glassdrumman, Cloch Óg, Tievecrom, Sugarloaf Hill, Creeveceeran, Drummuckavall and Croslieve Hill. That such serenity might be reflected in the political landscape in Northern Ireland remains to be seen.

Dr Tom Clonan is the Irish Times Security Analyst. He lectures in the School of Media, DIT.