British troops go on manoeuvres in north of Ireland

On 15 December 1993 then British Prime Minister John Major stood on the steps of Downing Street with Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds to announce a joint peace declaration. Major stated that the British Government had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in the north of Ireland, and went on to suggest that its role would be that of an altruistic neighbour whose sole interest was to see ‘peace, stability and reconciliation’ in Ireland.

What became known as the Downing Street declaration set the foundation for the much lauded Good Friday Agreement, which, from Beirut to Bogota, is held up as an example of a successful peace process.

One would have to wonder 21 years later, if there is no economic or strategic interest, why there are still over 5,000 British troops in Ireland? And why the British Army is launching a huge training operation in Derry at the moment? Manoeuvres and drilling involving 500 troops are taking place this week on Binevenagh mountain and in the MacGilligan peninsula in the north west.

This is in fact the largest training exercise the army has undertaken in Ireland since before the IRA’s most recent military campaign began. Lieutenant Colonel Matt Monroe of the Royal Scots Borderers, who is heading up the exercise, stated: ‘From a security perspective, it would have been really difficult to have run this exercise during Operation Banner’. Operation Banner was the name given to the entire military occupation during the time of the ‘Troubles’; since 2007 the army has worked under the operational name ‘Helvetic’. The goals and parameters of Helvetic are to offer specialised ordnance disposal and support to the police (PSNI (RUC)) in circumstances of extreme public disorder. Essentially it maintains the same goal as ‘Banner’ to quell any Nationalist unrest, but is tempered with a ‘softer approach’ more suitable to the current circumstances.

The army has implied that the training is not for use in operations in Ireland, but rather looking towards imperialist adventures elsewhere, with Monroe stating that ‘there's a tremendous amount going on in the world so it's important that our soldiers are prepared appropriately and well’. With regard to the impact of the operation on local people he said: ‘They shouldn't be concerned and our advice to the civilian population who could see these exercising soldiers is to simply go about their normal everyday routine lives’, adding: ‘We're here for the foreseeable future’.

The principal concern is not the training exercises but the fact that the troops are there at all. It is becoming more and more apparent to those who support the Good Friday Agreement that the British promises were made solely to secure nationalist agreement and are now past their usefulness, and that the demilitarisation of the province was a smokescreen to ensure the full-scale decommissioning of the Provisional IRA’s arsenal.

There has been very little attention paid in the press or by Sinn Fein to this (a 100 word statement on the online version of An Phoblacht), and with good reason. With power-sharing seemingly at an impasse, very much due to Unionist implacability on the subject of parades and flags, the sight of the British Army tramping through the hills of Derry puts paid to the illusion of change that the PR men at Sinn Fein have been pushing so hard. Martin McGuinness regularly declares that the so-called ‘dissidents’ are living in the past, that ‘the war is over’, urging them to step into 2014.

With the potential for power-sharing to fall apart because of Unionist intransigence, signifying that there is still a de facto Unionist veto, and with the British Army marauding through the countryside, the future is looking strangely like the past in the north of Ireland.

John Byrne


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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