Peace process continues as Army lowers profile

David McKittrick considers the significance of the decision to halt daylight patrols
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The Independent Online
The fact that routine military patrols will no longer be seen on the streets of Belfast during daylight hours prompts the question: what is the Army to do with 11,700 troops whose role has been drastically reduced?

Soldiers will still be needed for night patrols and for guard duty at the many security installations and bases. They will also continue to be prominent in hardline republican areas such as South Armagh, where the Royal Ulster Constabulary does not seem ready to take over.

But the weekend move is the latest in a series of incremental steps which have been slowly winding down the level of security-force activity since the IRA ceasefire in August and the loyalist ceasefire that followed.

In many areas, patrolling has been significantly reduced. The traditionally high levels of RUC overtime have been slashed, with many officers switched from anti-terrorist duties to areas such as traffic.

The pace of the demilitarisation has been the object of much debate. Unionist representatives tend to favour as slow a response as possible, while Sinn Fein continually accuses the Government of foot-dragging and delaying tactics. Constitutional nationalists call for a faster pace, arguing that speedier demilitarisation is the best way to consolidate peace.

One point of argument is whether the Government's pace has been dictated strictly by security considerations or whether it has been influenced by pressure from James Molyneaux's Ulster Unionist Party, which advocates caution. On the security side, there appears to be no settled consensus on whether the IRA cessation should be regarded as irrevocable.

Although few security sources seem to doubt the sincerity of the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, in opting for a political road instead of violence, there are different views on whether he can keep the entire republican movement in line.

On the political front, it is generally recognised that the Government is anxious to remain on good terms with the Ulster Unionists, whose nine votes could be critical to Mr Major in Commons votes. The question is whether the Government has deliberately slowed the pace in order to maintain good relations with the Unionists.

One argument is that the authorities would be foolish to drop their guard when the IRA remains in existence; when it has not disposed of any of its arms; and when its members continue to carry out activities such as punishment beatings.

The counter-argument - spelt out recently by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, in an unguarded moment - runs as follows: "To some extent, we have got to help Mr Adams carry with him the people who are reluctant to see a ceasefire, who believe they might be betrayed by the British government."

One problem with all of this is that, while peace has generally come to Northern Ireland, the political atmosphere remains highly charged. In such circumstances any moves involving troops are immediately seen as not just relating to security but also as having heavy political overtones.

In the meantime, the troops released from patrolling and other duties appear likely to have much time on their hands. Some of the soldiers stationed in less troubled areas lead a reasonably comfortable existence, but others in frontline areas, such as the Falls Road, are billeted in appalling conditions.

North Howard Street base, a converted Victorian mill off the Falls Road, is dingy, cramped, noisy, overcrowded and suffering from cockroach infestation. The ending of daylight patrols presumably means that many troops will be shipped out of such barracksand into better conditions.

If the peace lasts, and political conditions allow, it will probably not be long before some are on their way back to Britain.