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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 19:03 GMT 20:03 UK
Eyewitness: Watching the bases come down
A crewmember of a Puma helicopter watches over a town with his machine gun
Watching, prepared: The Army Puma comes in to land
Dominic Casciani
The pilot smoothly banked the Army Puma helicopter to the left and swung us around a small lush green hillock towards the landing site.

The rotor blades whupped-whupped through the hazy morning air but in the homes below they would have simply came over as a roar.

Our landing field had been prepared - armed members of the Queen's Own Borderers crouched on the edges of the field as the Puma quickly but delicately came down.

Ninety seconds later they would be back in the air and away.

Two minutes after that, an old man in wellington boots would walk through the field with his dogs as if this was a normal way of life for Newtownhamilton, south Armagh.

The village lying close to the Irish border has seen more than its fair share of the Troubles.

But it is now one of the first places to see a start of, in the jargon, "normalisation" - the demolition of military installations such as watchtowers, security barriers and the other trappings of a conflict.

Demolition work

The army had flown us into Newtownhamilton to witness one of the key stages in that process - the demolition of the "supersangar".

The Newtownhamilton sangar prepares to come down
Preparing: Engineers hooked up crane
The 15-tonne 22 metre high watchtower which overlooks the RUC security base (police station is simply not an appropriate word for something so fortified) also overlooks local homes.

Republicans and nationalists have long regarded the tower, built after the first IRA ceasefire of 1994, as a symbol of oppression. Many local Protestants see it as a bulwark against the IRA threat.

The Newtownhamilton sangar is lifted clear
Deconstruction: Sangar lifted clear of tower
But, come down it would and the Royal Engineers had arrived to do the job. While the tower had gone up in just seven days and had been at the centre of many years of controversy, its demolition would see it gone in a matter of weeks.

We were there to witness the critical stage of removing the armoured hut and anti-rocket cage at the top - very much part of the government's efforts to impress on the nationalist community that it is fulfilling its side of the bargain.

Just one sharp clank of a crane hoist and the hut was floating at the end of a crane arm.

Five minutes later it was gently brought to earth and Royal Engineers prepared to start its dismantling.

Soldiers watch the sangar come down
Memories: Soldiers watched the sangar come down
For something that was such a potent symbol of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the tower's demise came with no fuss and no audience. No republicans came out to cheer its demise.

No large crowds of Protestants appeared to attack the decision.

The previous day, relatives of RUC men killed in action in Newtownhamilton laid a wreath at the site. A few local residents quietly took a photograph and disappeared.


For Corporal Mark Longrigg, two months into his latest tour of duty with the Borderers, the removal of the supersangar, marked the end of many memories.

"Working here has been a job that I was prepared for and equipped for," he said.

"The conditions have been cramped but it's been enjoyable because of the banter among the people you work with.

"I personally have not witnessed much trouble in Northern Ireland. But you never switch off."

Next stop: Magherafelt

Back in the air, the loadmaster, the crewman responsible for us or whatever else was in the cabin, switched down his helmet visor and swung the Puma's machine gun out of the open cabin door towards the patchwork of lush green fields and villages below.


Months of work: Magherafelt base will be totally removed
Our next stop would be the army base at Magherafelt near the north shore of Lough Neagh.

Approximately 200 metres square, the base will completely disappear in the coming months as it is demolished, dismantled and eventually dug out. Two years from now it may be a retail park or nice new homes.

Magherafelt base started as a group of Nissan huts and sandbags and grew to a base large enough to land several helicopters.

A dozen soldiers based at the installation were killed during the Troubles. In February 1991 the IRA attacked the base by strapping a local man into a bomb-laden van while holding his wife hostage.

One of the sentries on duty risked his life by freeing the man before the bomb detonated, for which he was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for bravery.

Memorial garden

Inside the base, we watched as Royal Engineers took angle-grinders to the anti-rocket cage of the sangar. In the space of 45 minutes much of it was reduced to scrap metal.

Lt David Wallace
Lt Wallace: "Time to move on"
At the other end of the base lies its memorial garden dedicated to soldiers killed during the Troubles.

Lieutenant David Wallace of the Royal Irish Regiment has spent 14 years stationed at the base. He will be moving to a new posting at Ballykelly as the base is demolished. The memorial garden will also be moved to a new location.

"We are professionals and the decision has been taken to move us to we are happy to go," he said.

"We have a lot of memories, some of them good, some of them bad. But it's now time to move on."

Northern Ireland itself took that historic decision to move on collectively this week.

But the task ahead remains far more difficult than soldiers demolishing a few towers or somewhere, somehow, the IRA puts some arms beyond use.

Nobody yet knows if one day a Puma Helicopter hovering over a village will be a novelty rather than the norm.


Assembly back

IRA arms breakthrough

Background

Loyalist ceasefire

FORUM

SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

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Links to more Northern Ireland stories are at the foot of the page.


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