BELFAST — The British army marked a milestone of peacemaking yesterday as it formally ended its 38-year mission to bolster security in Northern Ireland.
The military's longest-running operation officially was ending at midnight, but the symbolic moment came months after the reality — no British troops have been on patrol on Belfast streets for two years.
As of today, all 5,000 soldiers remaining in this long-disputed corner of the United Kingdom will be committed to training for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere overseas.
Analysts and ex-soldiers are debating whether British security forces defeated the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), which waged a 1970-97 campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force. But all sides agree the IRA's 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm has permitted British soldiers to disengage.
"We don't need them any more," said Chief Constable Hugh Orde, commander of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which increasingly can operate in most of the IRA's Roman Catholic power bases. For decades, police patrols in those areas required backup from British troops.
The central goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 — a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party — was revived in May and has been operating harmoniously.
The other key goal, forging a police force supported by both sides of the community, is more than midway through a 10-year reform program. Catholic recruits in the police ranks have more than doubled to 21 percent, and Britain hopes to transfer control of Northern Ireland security to local hands next year.
Two dissident IRA groups continue to plot attacks. But Chief Constable Orde and Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, who commands the new "peacetime" army garrison, say the dissidents will be defeated by gathering intelligence, not by deploying troops.
The British army once had 106 bases and 27,000 troops in Northern Ireland, and had 44 bases here only two years ago. It now has fewer than 20 bases and expects to have just 10 by April.
The official end of Operation Banner — the code name used for the deployment of troops as peacekeepers 38 years ago — has triggered introspection throughout Britain and Ireland, where tens of thousands bear physical and psychological scars from a conflict that left 3,700 dead. Among those were 763 soldiers and 309 persons killed by soldiers, chiefly Catholic civilians and IRA members.
Britain deployed troops in August 1969 to end Protestant mob attacks on Catholic homes in West Belfast and street battles between Catholic civilians and Protestant police in Londonderry, the second-largest city. Most soldiers, welcomed by the Catholic minority, expected to stay for only weeks.