Low-profile Army keeps up its guard

A year of peace: Despite outward signs of relaxation, security forces remain on alert for any return to violence in Northern Ireland
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The Independent Online
It is easy to come away with the impression that the security forces are in two minds about the IRA and loyalist ceasefires which have brought a year of comparative peace to Northern Ireland.

On the one hand, signs of relaxation are everywhere: an Army base in the Falls Road has been bulldozed, streets re-opened, parking restrictions eased. The civilian search unit has been disbanded, and security road- checks have been reduced dramatically.

Police panda cars are now to be seen in many parts of Belfast and more speed-traps are mounted as the Royal Ulster Constabulary has more time to devote to duties such as traffic. Army patrols are down by 75 per cent.

Last week, half a dozen members of the Royal Irish Regiment were pictured in the Belfast Irish News handing over a charity cheque: they were shown full-face, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago because of the fear of IRA assassination.

Yet, on a deeper level, little has changed in the security posture. The combined complement of Army and RUC has, in a year, been reduced by only 1,500 to 30,500. Some hundreds more troops may be withdrawn this autumn, but those who are pulled back to England remain under the command of the Northern Ireland General Officer Commanding, ready to be recalled at short notice.

The guard, the authorities are anxious to point out, has not been dropped: there is no chance, they say, that a sudden return to violence would catch them on the hop.

This high state of readiness means that the peace is being policed by almost the same sizeable security apparatus that until last August was coping with more than 100 terrorist deaths a year. This machine keeps itself occupied in various ways.

First, the IRA and the loyalist terrorist groups are still in existence and, according to the authorities, continue to be engaged in training, targeting and other activities. The Army and police are still watching this carefully, though the number of house searches, arrests and charges has fallen steeply.

Second, there are the normal civil policing duties needed in any society.

Third, life in post-ceasefire Northern Ireland is by no means uneventful. In the last six months, there have been about 60 arson attacks on Protestant and Catholic buildings and homes, dozens of paramilitary punishment beatings and an increase in the drugs trade.

In addition, controversial marches are a recurring problem: most pass off uneventfully, but if things go wrong there can be widespread disorder. The serious street disturbances in July alone cost the RUC almost pounds 2m, the authorities say. Even so, life has obviously eased considerably for the Army and police. The Army has much more time to devote to training and occasional overseas exercises, and has increased community relations work with youth groups and other organisations. The bomb disposal unit, which once dealt with 37 terrorist incidents a week, is now untroubled by paramilitary activity.

When the ceasefire was announced, there was widespread speculation that many RUC officers and soldiers in the locally recruited Royal Irish Regiment would face redundancy. In the event, there have as yet been no such job losses. The Army says there is no review of the RIR under way, while RUC Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Annesley, speaks of force reductions as a faraway prospect, saying only that in the event of prolonged peace "clearly there will have to be, in the distant future, some down-sizing". The force is no longer operating at full stretch and is now saving pounds 1m a month in overtime.

The Government is planning to publish a White Paper on policing this autumn. Internal reviews are studying what type of structures would be best suited to lasting peace.

The Northern Ireland political parties - and the Irish government - will want a say in the shape of future policing, but since inter-party negotiations are not on the immediate horizon, debate will not be fully joined for some time.

Sinn Fein asserts simply that the RUC is not an acceptable police force: other nationalist sources, while less antagonistic, have been none the less heavily critical. Unionist politicians tend to be protective of the RUC, regarding it as an institution to be defended rather than radically reformed.

In the short term, the security forces are being kept in a high state of readiness: changes clearly lie ahead, but the signs are that they will take much longer than was initially assumed. In the longer term, there will be protracted and difficult debates on how such a divided society can best be policed. Producing a police force that is acceptable to all will be no easy matter.