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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 December 2007, 09:21 GMT
Banner comes down on momentous year
By Vincent Kearney
BBC NI home affairs correspondent

Troops regularly supported police operations from 1969 onwards
Troops regularly supported police operations
It was the year the British army left Northern Ireland - in an operational sense anyway.

After 38 years, the longest continuous campaign in the Army's history ended.

A strong wind blew across the parade ground at the Army's headquarters in Lisburn as the last post sounded on Friday 3 August.

But this was no ordinary parade. A few hundred specially invited guests were there to witness a truly unique ceremony.

The winds of change were also blowing.

This was the official end of Operation Banner, the name given to the Army's support role for the police during the Troubles.

It started when troops arrived during the summer of 1969, when Army commanders expected them to spend a few weeks sorting out a small, local problem.

Looking back at the footage of the soldiers arriving, it was like a scene from a war movie as thousands disembarked from ships in Belfast as the small peace time garrison was reinforced from British army bases all over the world.

Troops and equipment arrived from throughout the United Kingdom, Germany and Africa.

The Army was clearly unprepared - soldiers arrived on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry with bayonets fixed, some of the signs they carried warning rioters to disperse were in Arabic, and many of the troops were issued with flak jackets the Americans had used in Vietnam.

By the height of the Troubles in 1972, there were 27,000 military personnel here, based in more than 100 locations.

The numbers are quite staggering - that's 1,000 more than the number of British soldiers deployed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more than double the combined Army force in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

In total, more than 300,000 British soldiers served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and for many years it was used as a training ground for the Army's most able officers.

Seven hundred and sixty-three military personnel were killed, and many more injured and maimed.

To put that in perspective, the number of combat deaths suffered by the army in Afghanistan since 2001 is 59, while in the worst year of the Troubles, 1972, the number of deaths was 129.

Army tank in Belfast in 1969
Thousands of troops arrived on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1969

Soldiers also killed more than 300 people, more than half of them civilians.

Many of the killings were highly controversial and provoked allegations of collusion.

A number of highly secretive military units also operated here during the troubles and they have been accused of working in collaboration with loyalist paramilitaries.

There were very different views about how the Army performed.

In unionist areas, generally speaking, the Army was regarded as a vital bulwark against terrorism, and part of the solution. However, in nationalist areas it was widely regarded as part of the problem.

Today, the Army doesn't have an operational role here.

Soldiers will still train and be based here, but they will be for deployment in trouble spots across the world, not on the streets of Northern Ireland.

The home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, the successor to the UDR, were also disbanded during the summer.

In future, there will be no more than 5,000 troops in Northern Ireland, but that figure will be significantly lower during periods when resident battalions are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The end of the Army's operational role wasn't the only significant security development during the past year.

In May the UVF announced that it was standing down.

Thirteen years after declaring its ceasefire, Gusty Spence, the veteran loyalist who helped bring the UVF onto the terrorist stage in 1966, finally announced that its war was over and that it was going to become a "non military" organisation.

UVF mural
In May the UVF said it was standing down

The group, which killed more than 500 people during the Troubles, hasn't gone away entirely.

Its leadership and a small number of senior members will remain to oversee the change in its role.

They will also oversee its weapons, which the organisation has refused to decommission, stating that they have been "put beyond reach", rather than "put beyond use".

Some senior UVF members met General John de Chastelain, the head of the international decommissioning body, shortly after making the announcement, but there have been no further meetings and at this stage there is no prospect of weapons actually being decommissioned.

The UDA also announced last month that it was standing down the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

But as the UFF was widely regarded as nothing more than a cover name for the UDA to claim attacks, many viewed this simply as retiring a name rather than an organisation.

And while senior UDA leaders talk about ending criminality, the police, the Independent Monitoring Commission and community sources say many members remain heavily involved in a wide range of criminal activity, including drug dealing.

The organisation also remains fractured, with the possibility of a bloody feud between rival factions a constant threat.

The UDA has also met General de Chastelain, but like the UVF there is no prospect of decommissioning.

Paul Quinn
Paul Quinn was beaten to death in October

Just ask Margaret Ritchie, the minister for social development, who withdrew 1.2m of funding for a loyalist project because the UDA leadership failed to meet her 60 day deadline to destroy its weapons.

That decision sparked a political storm, with the minister accused of breaching the Stormont Executive's code of conduct, and it is now the subject of a legal challenge.

As for the IRA, security sources consistently say its leadership remains committed to a peaceful path, and continues to dismantle the organisation.

But the very existence of that leadership, the IRA's so-called army council, is the subject of political debate, with the DUP demanding its disbandment before the devolution of policing and justice powers next year.

Members of the IRA have also been accused of murdering Paul Quinn, the 21-year-old savagely beaten to death in County Monaghan in October.

Sinn Fein has rejected those allegations and the police say there is no evidence to suggest the IRA was responsible. If that assessment changes, the political implications will be huge.

No fanfare for Operation Banner
31 Jul 07 |  Northern Ireland
In pictures: Operation Banner
31 Jul 07 |  In Pictures
Last troops pull out of Bessbrook
25 Jun 07 |  Northern Ireland
Last soldiers leave Crossmaglen
31 Mar 07 |  Northern Ireland

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