At midnight on Tuesday, July 31st, the British military operation in the north of Ireland (“Operation Banner”) officially came to an end, with all troops were recalled to their barracks–a mostly symbolic gesture following what Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly called “generations of an Orwellian nightmare of oppression.”
The North Belfast MLA, himself jailed in 1973 over an Old Bailey bomb plot in London, recalled the lengths the Army went to gather intelligence as the conflict intensified.
He said: “I remember around `72, when I was going about, nearly every working class Catholic`s house was on computer.
I was on the run at the time and if I gave a name they (the British) would ask me what colour the wallpaper was in that household because they had it on file.
They used to walk into houses at night and count everyone there, from babies up, to keep check.
When you talk about (Orwell`s book) Nineteen Eighty-Four, this was real Big Brother stuff, big time.”
Mr Kelly, part of the Sinn Fein team who negotiated a political deal which has led to the ending of Operation Banner, insisted the military withdrawal is hugely significant.
We have had British troops and other Crown Forces on the ground now into a second generation, and it was an oppressive presence.
People were interned and its now accepted that the majority of them were innocent.
Before they had intelligence, internment was being used as a weapon against nationalists and Catholic people.
Then in North Belfast, for 25 years the Army were on top of the flats on the New Lodge Road.
You had the mother of Peter McBride, who was shot dead by two Scots Guards in 1992, living under an Army post where she had to watch the regiment going up and down every day.
The harassment was so in your face. These are emotive words, but it was oppressive in a very personal way.
That`s the type of thing that was put under the banner of counter-insurgency. But when you look back at it now it was the simple repetition of tactics that were used by the British Army in every single arena in the world they went into as a colonial power.
It was a clever move to try and suppress a particular section of our community who were Irish republicans. But it also affected people who were simply Catholic nationalists.”
The military tactics also helped persuade many republicans to join the IRA`s armed struggle, Mr Kelly added.
“They helped to recruit into the organisation by their actions,” he said.
He also described the efforts to strike a demilitarisation deal as painstaking.
“You could have negotiated for hours on end over a single military post.
But a lot of people are glad to see this day happen, and it will only help to generate inter-community dialogue.”
More than a quarter of a million troops were brought to the north over the course of the conflict. Troop levels will now not exceed 5,000, which is apparently a normal peace-time army. At least until we can get them to leave for good…
Interestingly enough (though certainly no surprise to anyone familiar with the British track record in Ireland), the soldiers that remain in the north will be given “slightly more power than anywhere else in the UK.” In fact, they will be permitted to stop and question anyone about anything and hold them indefinitely until they comply:
There’s a definite irony in having the troops move out on July 31st and giving them powers for arrest on August 1,” said Jane Winter, director of British- Irish Rights Watch. “On the face of it, there’s no rationale for that.”
The Committee on the Administration of Justice said the new power is ” unacceptable”, but Government defends it as a necessary preparation.
“We hope that it won’t be necessary to have troops on the streets again, ” an NIO spokes- person said, “but we must be prepared and as long as there is the potential for serious public order incidents, the Army should be available to support the police and this role requires the military to have powers over and above the ordinary citizen.
“Military support is not necessary for public order situations elsewhere in the UK, and therefore the powers are not required in England, Scotland or Wales.”