- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

BELFAST — The British army began closing or demolishing military installations in the Irish Republican Army’s rural heartland yesterday in a rapid response to the IRA’s declaration to renounce violence and disarm.

Soldiers started to dismantle or withdraw from three positions in South Armagh, a rebellious borderland nicknamed “bandit country,” where soldiers still travel by helicopter because of the risk of IRA dissidents’ roadside bombs.

The move came a day after IRA commanders promised to disarm fully, and directed their units to dump their weapons and use “exclusively peaceful means” from now on.

The breakthrough was the product of a two-year diplomatic showdown between the IRA and its allied Sinn Fein party, on the one hand, and the British, Irish and U.S. governments, which demanded the IRA’s full disarmament and disbandment — in effect if not in name.

Britain, which also paroled an IRA mass murderer Wednesday as part of the emerging new agreement, agreed to close down an army base in the South Armagh village of Forkhill, a hilltop tower near Camlough Mountain with commanding views of surrounding hamlets and roads, and a tower in Newtownhamilton, the only South Armagh village with a substantial Protestant minority.

Lt. Gen. Reddy Watt, who commands the British army’s 12,000-member force in Northern Ireland, confirmed the military cutbacks. Gen. Watt said he and Chief Constable Hugh Orde, commander of the Northern Ireland police, “have decided that a further reduction in security profile is possible.”

The British army has already withdrawn more than 7,000 soldiers and closed more than three dozen installations since 1998, but paused the gradual process in recent months to await the IRA’s next move.

With yesterday’s cutbacks, seven watchtowers along the South Armagh border with the Irish Republic will remain — half the number in place in 2001. One tower already dismantled had monitored activities at the farm and fuel-smuggling base operated by Thomas “Slab” Murphy, the IRA’s reputed chief of staff.

The hilltop posts allow troops to monitor movements on roads and eavesdrop on conversations with the use of high-powered directional microphones, and are despised by Catholic locals as fostering a “Big Brother” atmosphere in their tight-knit, closed communities.

Protestant politicians condemned the British authorities’ rapid reward for the IRA words, noting that police still aren’t able to operate without military backup in South Armagh.

“It’s criminally irresponsible of the government to do this, given what has gone on in those border areas,” said Arlene Foster, a negotiator for the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents most of the province’s British Protestant majority. “The government seems quite happy to act on words alone.”

But Conor Murphy, a former IRA member who is Sinn Fein’s member of the British Parliament for South Armagh, said its residents “have lived with the negative effects of military occupation for too long.” He said yesterday’s military retreat “must be built upon in the days and weeks ahead.”

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