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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 July 2007, 01:38 GMT 02:38 UK
No fanfare for Operation Banner
By Kevin Connolly
Ireland correspondent, BBC News

There will be no bugles at sunset this evening at the British army's remaining bases in Northern Ireland and no symbolic striking of the Union flag; nothing in short that smacks of withdrawal, or departure or re-redeployment.

British army
The British army has been in Northern Ireland for 38 years

But make no mistake, this is a significant day in Northern Ireland's recent history and a sure sign that the foundations on which it has built peace and power-sharing, devolution and development are holding.

Over the last few years, as the peace process has bedded down, military engineers have taken bolt-cutters and bulldozers to the highly-visible infrastructure of observation posts, barracks and road blocks which the Army haphazardly created over the 38 years of Operation Banner.

On Tuesday, the stroke of an administrator's pen will do even more to bring normality back to Northern Ireland.

From now on, the legal status of the Army here will be same as it is in Wales or Scotland - no longer will it be "operating in support of the civil power".

A garrison of 5,000 or so soldiers remains, but they will be living and training in Northern Ireland, available for deployment to other theatres of conflict around the world.

Sectarian rioting

In truth, the Army melted away, rather than marched away from the conflict in Northern Ireland.

As it became clear that the paramilitary ceasefires of the mid-1990s were holding, patrolling was gradually phased out, smaller rural bases were closed and the profile of the Army was steadily lowered.

Where once it was commonplace to find your route across the border or along a country road blocked by squaddies manning a checkpoint, it became something of a rarity. Now it is unheard of.

It was Northern Ireland's unionist government who appealed to London to send in the troops in 1969 after prolonged sectarian rioting left the small and mainly Protestant police force on the edge of exhaustion and ministers close to panic.

Few people elsewhere in the UK knew anything about Northern Ireland back then - either about the self-serving way in which it was run by a Unionist government with a guaranteed majority or about growing nationalist protests demanding better housing and employment rights, and changes to the voting system.

Within a few years, the names of obscure housing areas like the Ardoyne and the Bogside were familiar all over the world, and Northern Ireland burned and bled on the television news every night.

When the Army marched in at first - with fixed bayonets - many Northern Irish Catholics hailed them as saviours, come to protect them from loyalist mob violence. Television pictures showed local housewives offering troops flasks of tea and slices of cake.

You are the Gestapo as it were, searching their home at three in the morning, and that's how they see you
Author Alan Judd

Within months, most Irish nationalists had begun to see the troops not in the context of the immediate crisis, but in the longer history of British intervention in Ireland that stretched from Henry II to the Black and Tans.

As the historian Brian Feeney puts it: "The guys who came here in 1969 had all fought in Aden and they brought particular attitudes with them - including banners warning rioters they'd be shot which were in Arabic. But they also brought ideas about 'sorting out the natives' which you couldn't have in the UK."

Very quickly, the mission subtly elided from 'keeping the two communities apart' to 'fighting the IRA'.

That meant house searches which were often crude and violent - and the tactic of using live ammunition against rioters using petrol bombs meant civilian fatalities. Implacable bitterness against the Army became commonplace in nationalist areas.

Price of peace

The author and former soldier Alan Judd, whose novel A Breed Of Heroes brilliantly captures Northern Ireland in the early seventies from a soldier's point of view, says: "You are the object of hatred, real hatred, because of the uniform you are wearing, and you can't step outside your role and say 'I don't like having to search your home'.

"You are the Gestapo as it were, searching their home at three in the morning, and that's how they see you."

When the modern Army, message-focused and public relations sensitive, reflects on the campaign it tends to seek out lessons which are practical and tactical, rather than moral or historical.

Lower down the ranks they talk of learning 'skills and drills' in Northern Ireland; the army's current commander General Nick Parker puts the same idea across with more subtlety - and also implies that the Army maintained enough stability to allow politicians to do their work.

Patrols in Northern Ireland
Patrols in the Bogside area of Londonderry in 1969

He said: "The military provide a security environment that allows others to provide the solution to whatever the main challenge is and you can't provide a secure environment without really understanding the complexity of the area you're operating in."

There is no space here, of course, for a history of the Army's operations in Northern Ireland - either for incidents like Bloody Sunday in 1972, when troops shot dead 14 unarmed protesters, or for Warrenpoint when 18 soldiers were killed in an IRA bomb attack.

And as peace has settled here, attention has tended to focus elsewhere - Helmand province and Basra now occupy the place in our headlines once filled by south Armagh and east Tyrone.

But this is as good a day as any to remember the dead.

The Army killed 301 people on operations, around half of whom were nothing to do with any paramilitary organisation. And 763 military personnel were killed - many of them murdered in defenceless moments off duty.

Peace - already happily taken for granted in Northern Ireland - will seem a little more permanent and a little more real today but before the last traces of the Army's presence fade as the fields grow back over the old check-points, it is worth reflecting again on the price at which that peace was achieved.

Archive footage of the British army in Northern Ireland

Army ending its operation in NI
31 Jul 07 |  Northern Ireland
Last troops pull out of Bessbrook
25 Jun 07 |  Northern Ireland
Stormont for beginners
05 Jun 07 |  Northern Ireland
Quick guide: Conflict in Northern Ireland
29 Jun 06 |  Northern Ireland
Timeline: Northern Ireland's road to peace
27 Jan 06 |  Northern Ireland


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