DERRY — The British government has announced an overhaul of its military and security structure in Northern Ireland, pledging to halve its troops to just over 5,000, end army support for the police, and close down 26 of 40 army sites in the region.
The move follows an announcement last week by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that it “formally ordered an end to the armed campaign” against British control of Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday, Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, said the British government’s pledged would be “achievable within two years” provided the “enabling environment is established and maintained.”
“Enabling environment” is seen as code for the IRA agreeing to disarm.
Northern Ireland’s three decades of civil conflict up to 1998 saw over 3,600 people killed, most of them civilians, as mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans paramilitaries, who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland to the south, faced off against mostly Protestant unionists or loyalist counterparts who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. British soldiers flooded into Northern Ireland but were viewed by many nationalists as a hostile occupation force and were regularly targeted by the IRA.
The most controversial aspect of the UK proposals appears to be the imminent disbandment of the locally-based battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR).
The local members of the RIR have been almost exclusively Protestant, and played a significant role in combating the IRA throughout Northern Ireland’s civil conflict.
Nationalists feel that the RIR was a partisan entity, as it was drawn partly from the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), itself tainted by allegations of collusion and cross-membership with loyalist paramilitary groups.
Unionists have reacted with fury and dismay. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley has requested a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, while Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Sir Reg Empey has called for a united unionist front to oppose the plans.
In an interview with ISN Security Watch on Tuesday, the UUP’s Tom Elliott, a former UDR-RIR soldier, described the new security measures as “disappointing, premature, and politically motivated”. He said the move was clearly “choreographed between the IRA and the government.”
The announcement has caused a public row between the UUP and the DUP, which is now the largest unionist party. The DUP accuses the UUP of facilitating what it terms “concessions made” by the UK government to Sinn Féin and the IRA at 2003 negotiations aimed at restoring Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions.
Hain’s proposals are drawn from a joint Irish-British declaration from April 2003, which outlined demilitarization proposals in an attempt to coax the IRA into disarming.
Elliott, an elected member of Northern Ireland’s suspended assembly is from a rural area bordering the Republic of Ireland, which an IRA stronghold and saw numerous police station closures in recent years. He repudiated the DUP stance, citing the numerous concessions made to Sinn Féin in the time since the DUP began the largest unionist party. But this concession, he said was “the mother of them all”.
Nationalists in Northern Ireland, as well as the Irish government, have welcomed the proposals.
Jumpstarting the peace process?
The IRA is reportedly in talks with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), and the British and Irish governments are awaiting a statement that IRA disarmament has recommenced.
The IRA decommissioned some weapons on three previous occasions.
The IRA statement and expected disarmament are designed to restart the political negotiations to restart Northern Ireland’s peace process. However unionists believe that the security normalization plans will delay the return of political negotiations dedicated to restoring Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly and executive, which have been suspended since October 2002.
In the meantime, some analysts say the move provides the British government with an opportunity to start streamlining its resources.
Tom Clonan, a retired Irish Army officer, believes that last week’s IRA statement gave the British government and military establishment the opportunity to press ahead with overall military streamlining, in the context of the ongoing Strategic Defence Review (SDR) and NATO’s Defense Capability Initiative (DCI).
Clonan told ISN Security Watch that the peace process was “not the only issue.” He said it made sense for this move to take place now, allowing the British army to reallocate resources and reconfigure its Northern Ireland operation to fit “the more nimble, expeditionary model based on a brigade rather than a division” in the light of the SDR and DCI.
He believes that the UK military establishment needs to dedicate resources elsewhere, with London the recent victim of terror attacks, and given British military commitments in Iraq, where 8,500 troops have joined the U.S.-led occupation.Show