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British Army Exits Northern Ireland


At midnight last night, the British army's operation in Northern Ireland came to an end.

It was nearly 40 years ago that British troops entered the province in a campaign codenamed Operation Banner. Over the years, some 300,000 troops took part; now a garrison of just 5,000 remains. And security will be entirely in the hands of Northern Ireland's police.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: When the first British soldiers were deployed in August 1969 to help quell violence between the Protestant and Catholic communities, commanders believed they'd be in Northern Ireland for just a few weeks. In the end, the British army stayed 38 years and nearly 3,700 people were killed on both sides during that time.

Now, though, the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, has agreed to give up its weapons and the British army has pulled out, as a previously unthinkable political power-sharing deal has been established between the former enemies in the Northern Irish parliament. The chief constable of the new police service in Northern Ireland, Sir Hugh Orde, says the deal has made the army's presence unnecessary.

Sir HUGH STEPHEN ORDE (Chief Constable, Police Service of Northern Ireland): The world has moved on very quickly in Northern Ireland. We have been fortunate to be able to rely on additional resources. We don't need them anymore. The minute it suits us, it suits the military. They're very busy in other theaters of war and, of course, you know, this place is very different now.

GIFFORD: The difference is perhaps most evident in the small, very Catholic town of Crossmaglen in the province of South Armagh, near to the border with the Irish Republic. There are still signs beside the road in support of the IRA, but the British army base here has already closed and there are no more army checkpoints on the roads or army helicopters buzzing overhead.

Tom McKay is the founder of an organization called ROSA; that stands for the Regeneration of South Armagh. And he says the region formerly known by some as bandit country is getting a whole new beginning as a tourist destination.

Mr. TOM MCKAY (Founder, Regeneration of South Armagh): Within an hour south of South Armagh, you have at least 40 golf courses. Many lakes, such as (unintelligible) in South Armagh, where you can fish to your heart's content. And if you want a bit of sing-song, culture and (unintelligible), we have a number pubs - bars in the evening who will provide that as well.

(Soundbite of music)

GIFFORD: Crossmaglen, like so many parts of Northern Ireland, is benefiting from an influx of development money. There is new housing springing up, new stores, new bars and a new hotel. In one of the bars sits 50-year-old Pat Maknami(ph). He says he served six years in jail for what he calls Republican activities. He says the British troops acted as occupiers in Crossmaglen.

Mr. PAT MAKNAMI: A few young lads, young fellows on the street, they'd line them up against the wall and search them. I grew up when I was actually afraid to leave my own house after dark because I could be beaten up by the British army.

GIFFORD: Maknami naturally welcomes the departure of British troops. He still wants a united Ireland, but he says people in the town seem to realize that if it happens it will come about now through political means. In Protestant community across Northern Ireland there are similar feelings.

(Soundbite of marching band)

GIFFORD: A Protestant group marched through the center of Belfast yesterday, and divisions still run deep. A huge 40-foot wall separates the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road. But in a small restaurant on the Shankill Road, waitress Gwen Reid(ph) says a lot of Protestants admit it's right that the troops have gone.

Ms. GWEN REID: You know, it should have happened long ago. It took all this time for it to happen, but (unintelligible) just look after what's needed to be done.

GIFFORD: But there's still no love lost on the Shankill Road for former IRA leaders such as Jerry Adams. And Gwen's friend, Jacqueline Plankston(ph) is not so optimistic about the future.

Ms. JACQUELINE PLANKSTON: I don't think that they should have pulled out so many troops so quick. Well, Secretary Adams says they haven't gone away, you know, the IRA. I don't know. I just don't trust them. I think once one side doesn't get their own way, it will all start again.

GIFFORD: Such feelings show what decades of violence can do to people's trust. They also reflect a concern among some Protestants that their own politicians, in doing a political deal with the former IRA leaders, have sold them out, and that a united Ireland is now a certainty, albeit a distant one. The question that none of the doubters can answer, though, is what's the alternative. No one here wants to return to the violence of the past.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Belfast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.
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