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Thursday, 8 March, 2001, 18:32 GMT
NI: Security and normalisation

While the peace process has continued at an uncertain pace, how else is society in Northern Ireland changing?


BACKGROUND

While the focus of attention since the Good Friday agreement of 1998 has been on the big three issues of devolution, policing reform and paramilitary disarmament, the agreement also included a whole raft of measures aimed at "normalising" Northern Ireland's society after 30 years of conflict.

This normalisation process, which remains the responsibility of government and not the Northern Ireland Assembly, has a number of key themes:

  • Establishing a civilian security apparatus
  • Scaling down the military presence
  • Reforming institutions to win the support of all communities

    The nationalist parties regard these measures as vital to making the peace process work for their communities.

    For Sinn Fein, measures on demilitarisation and equality are essential to retain the support of republicans who have chosen to back the peace process rather than conflict.


    THE SECURITY SITUATION

    One of the key commitments made by the British government in the Good Friday Agreement was to begin a process of scaling down the presence of the army.

    In 1998 it set out its policy for responding to three possible security scenarios:

  • Scenario One:
    Paramilitary organisations dismantled and disarmed with a residual threat remaining but improving community relations lessening the risk of sectarian violence.
    Security response
    Northern Ireland would have a civilian police force operating without military support.

  • Scenario two:
    This is described as a "spectrum of threat levels" ranging from some paramilitaries beginning to disarm with some sporadic terrorist activity but smaller groups continuing to be active. The scenario envisages insuring against the possibility of a sudden increase in paramilitary activity and public disorder.
    Security profile
    Continuing requirement for counter-terrorist policing, with military support as necessary.

  • Scenario three:
    "A high level of terrorist activity, including bombings, shootings and so-called 'punishment' attacks, probably coupled with serious public disorder."
    Security profile
    Where appropriate, a high level of counter-terrorist policing, supported by the military.

    Which scenario Northern Ireland is currently in, is open to debate. But since the signing of the agreement the number of soldiers has been reduced by approximately 2,500 from 16,000 to 13,500.

    Five battalions have left Northern Ireland while one remains.


    The government wishes to see as early a return as possible to normal policing arrangements in Northern Ireland

    Northern Ireland Office
    This is the lowest number of troops since the start of the Troubles and contrasts starkly with the peak of 30,000 during the 1970s.

    The Northern Ireland Office says that some 25 military bases or installations have been closed or dismantled and there has been a massive reduction in air activity - generally military or RUC helicopters carrying out observation missions.

    Routine army patrols have reduced by 70% says the NIO, and two-thirds of Northern Ireland is now without any patrolling whatsoever.

    The results have been most tangible in town centres.

    Anyone who knew Belfast before the first IRA ceasefire of 1994 lived with the daily expectation of road blocks, security searches and a continual sense of tension in the air.

    More than six years later, a visitor to the main shopping and tourist areas would see little that differentiates the city from other areas of the UK or Ireland.

    However the divisions still run deep. RUC stations are still heavily fortified and "peace lines" - the barriers which went up to prevent sectarian clashes between the communities - remain.

    The largest security presence remains around the border area of South Armagh - a long-standing IRA stronghold.

    It is here that republicans are demanding action on demilitarisation, saying that nationalist communities across the county are still under siege.

    The NIO says that normalisation has already begun - most symbolically with the removal of the army's infamous observation tower in the border town of Crossmaglen.

    But it adds that its security decisions are reflect remaining threats, including the rise of dissident republicans.

    As with everything in the peace process, the parties have divergent views.

    The UUP has accepted some normalisation but would only support the complete withdrawal of troops in the context of paramilitary decommissioning.

    The anti-agreement DUP has opposed the government's moves and has called for security to be tightened, believing that there has been no drop in threat from the IRA.

    The SDLP sees demilitarisation as something the British Government has to honour as part of the implementation of the political agreement.

    Sinn Fein remain the most vocal on the issue and has demanded the "dismantling of the British war machine" to the point that there is no British military presence in Northern Ireland at all.

    Simply put, it argues that the only way to remove all the guns from Irish politics - and ensure paramilitary decommissioning - is for the British army to go too.


    JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS

    Another major pledge of the Good Friday Agreement was for the British government to review the criminal justice system and set up a human rights commission.

    The latter was quickly established and Northern Ireland's public services are now subject to the European Convention on Human Rights - as has been the whole of the UK since October 2000.

    The criminal justice review reported on 30 March last year and recommended a raft of changes designed to build confidence among the communities that justice truly was blind:

  • The removal of all Crown symbols from courtrooms
  • The scrapping of judges' oath of allegiance to The Queen
  • The scrapping of starting court sessions by saying "God Save the Queen"
  • No change in displaying the royal coat of arms outside existing courthouses
  • No change in the flying of the Union Flag over courthouses

    The commission also recommended that judicial matters should be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, rather than being reserved matters decided by the secretary of state.

    It also called for an independent Public Prosecution Service and new mechanisms to create closer criminal justice ties with the Irish Republic, such as allowing prisoners to transfer to jails south of the border.

    As expected, reaction to the review was mixed.

    Moderate nationalists and unionists have generally accepted the proposals as a part of the way Northern Ireland is changing. Republicans have been typically more cautious - though positive.

    Anti-agreement unionists reacted with anger and said that it was a blatant attempt to erode the British state.

    Draft legislation is expected - but it is likely to be more than a year before any changes are enacted, irrespective of who wins the general election.

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