Britain unveils plans to reduce NI military presence

 

The Northern Ireland Secretary has announced details of plans to reduce the British military presence in the North.

The measures include withdrawing large numbers of troops and abolishing watchtowers.

In the wake of the IRA's decision to end its armed campaign Peter Hain said it was vital for local police to be able to do their job without needing back-up from the Armed Forces.  Levels of security forces should eventually come in line with the rest of the UK, he said.

Under the security normalisation plans, Army observation posts will be closed, police stations will be defortified and troops reduced to peacetime levels of around 5,000 soldiers if the security climate is right. There are currently around 10,500 British soldiers in Northern Ireland.

The government is also aiming to repeal within two years counter terrorist legislation particular to Northern Ireland if everything goes according to plan.

The most controversial aspect is a plan to disband the Northern Ireland based units of the Royal Irish Regiment. Over 3,000 soldiers are in the RIR, many of them serving part-time.

The Army's General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland, Sir Redmond Watt, confirmed the RIR home service battalions would end their support role for the police on August 1st, 2007.

The plan will be introduced in three phases over the next 24 months.

In the first phase lasting eight months:

  • The observation post in Divis Tower in west Belfast will be removed over six months, with work starting this week, possibly tomorrow.
  • Two observation towers will also be dismantled over six months at the Masonic site in Derry.
  • Two towers in south Armagh in Creevekeeran and Drummuckavall will also be removed, with the sites restored to greenfield status.
  • A structured plan will be produced for the phased reduction of the military's presence in Northern Ireland to that of a peacetime garrison.
  • The review of the police estate will continue with Northern Ireland's Policing Board and district commanders and local communities including moves to defortify 24 PSNI stations.

In the second phase will last 12 months, while the third and final phase will take four months.

Mr Hain, who discussed demilitarisation with Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy at Hillsborough Castle this morning along with PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, stressed today that the plans would only be implemented in the right security climate.

"My first and overriding priority, and that of the Chief Constable and the Army GOC, is the safety and security of the people of Northern Ireland. We will not do anything that will compromise that.

"Provided the enabling environment is established and maintained this programme 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.

"The programme published today will see the creation of an environment which will allow the return of conventional policing across Northern Ireland."