End of a west Belfast emblem

 

No tears will be shed at the closure and demolition of Andersonstown police station, writes Dan Keenan, Northern News Editor

Police foot patrols along the Falls Road in Belfast at the height of the Troubles were a sight to behold. As if to prove a point that officers could police anywhere in Northern Ireland, British soldiers would set off down the busy road well beforehand. Eventually, once several heavily armed soldiers had walked the route, two RUC men would head out on patrol. More soldiers would follow at a distance. The two officers, thumbs tucked behind RUC-issue body armour, would return from foot patrol to the fortified Andersonstown barracks, the most attacked station in Northern Ireland.

Situated in the heart of west Belfast where the Falls, Glen and Andersonstown roads converge, the barracks has sheltered behind anti-rocket screens and the electronic gaze of countless devices. Now, after more than 100 years, Andersonstown barracks has closed as the fledgling Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) declares the old building no longer "fit for purpose".

The station will fall - physically as well as metaphorically - to what official British policy calls "normalisation". The place will be demolished next month and the commercially attractive site put up for sale.

The final shutting of its impressive gates by the last departing PSNI officer was greeted with dry eyes among the republican faithful which remains almost as hostile to the new police service as it was to the RUC.

Certainly there was nothing "normal" about the recent history of Andersonstown RUC station. It has witnessed bombing attacks, most notably in May 1983 when a 1,000-pound device blew a hole in it that cost £1 million to repair.

Its fortification stands just across the road from Milltown cemetery where loyalist killer Michael Stone murdered mourners at a funeral and a short distance from where two British corporals were lynched, in front of TV cameras, after driving into the crowd attending the funeral of one of Stone's victims. Countless shooting incidents and other violent acts happened in the immediate area.

For Sinn Féin, the barracks represented something more akin to an occupation by hostile forces than a police force serving the locals.

LOCAL ASSEMBLY MEMBER Michael Ferguson says: "It is the base where they tortured people and planned the raids on our constituents' homes, so hopefully this will be the first of many acts of demilitarisation".

For Alex Attwood, the sole SDLP Assembly member in the constituency, the closure and demolition represents a victory for the Policing Board, the civilian body which holds the PSNI to account. "No one should forget that police officers were attacked and killed in and around the station and that many, many civilians were hurt and abused by policing practice in the past," he says. The past ought to be remembered, he adds, and the site developed symbolising the future and the best of west Belfast.

The PSNI, under the reforming Hugh Orde, is constructing six new and purpose-built stations costing £200 million to replace some of the small, remote or out-of-date barracks among the 135 currently in use. While republicans refer to its demise as "demilitarisation" and the Policing Board prefers "normalisation", Andersonstown is falling victim to the Patten Commission recommendation that stations become more accessible and friendly.

Neither charge could be levelled successfully at Andersonstown. One well-placed policing source says he has a strong sense of déjà-vu.

Recalling a similar recommendation in the Hunt report in the late 1960s before the Troubles reignited, he warns that the lowering of defences could yet be premature. Many unionists reflect a fear that open-door client-friendly PSNI stations are mere wishful thinking pending a statement - and evidence - that the "war" is conclusively over.

Despite this, Chief Insp Peter Farrar, who faced the press to mark the closure, was firmly optimistic and would not depart from Patten's modernising script. "Society has changed and policing has changed across Northern Ireland so we are trying to keep up with society by making sure what we are doing is the most effective and progressive way of policing in west Belfast."

Controversy surrounding Andersonstown station will persist long after the demolition dust has settled. So emblematic was the watch tower at the former RUC base, its replacement should also testify to more than 30 years of conflict.

Republicans are pushing for the site to be developed into a political tourism centre from which visitors could make the short walk to the Republican plot in Milltown cemetery. Others say the site deserves a "landmark building" which is dramatic and attention-seeking and which reflects the recent past but has its face set to the future. It is thought the ruins of a medieval church are covered by the site and these should be excavated and given some heritage tourism treatment.

Perhaps the final say will go to those whose homes have survived in the shadow of its fortifications and the bristling surveillance antennae. Whatever happens in the short term, the Falls Road community will continue to adjust from the armed struggle to the current armed peace.