Small steps on the road to sanity

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Belfast continues slow transformation from war zone to a more conventional metropolis, writes David McKittrick The removal of troops from the streets of Belfast during daylight hours is the latest in a series of small but significant steps which are gradually transforming the city from a minor war zone into a more conventional metropolis.

While the city still bears many scars and reminders of the 25 years of armed conflict which it has lived through, the many incremental relaxations of security have created a new atmosphere.

It would be inaccurate to say that normality has arrived, but the ceasefires declared last year by the IRA and extreme Protestant groups mean that only two people have died violently since September, both at the hands of loyalists.

The lack of violence has created new hope and removed much of the fear and apprehension which constantly attended life in Belfast. Confidence that the ceasefires will last varies greatly, but for the moment at least bombings and shootings have ceased to be daily fare.

The security authorities have reacted with caution, though from the start troops and police officers on the ground displayed more confidence than the official line from security chiefs and the Northern Ireland Office. Within a few days of the IRA cessation, for example, policemen could be seen without flak jackets on the Falls Road.

The official approach has been to tread extremely carefully and to make no irreversible changes in security. But over the months the number of patrols has been gradually reduced, soldiers have largely discarded their helmets in favour of berets and a number of sealed-off streets have been reopened to traffic. Searches and arrests also appear less common while the number of helicopter flights is down, though helicopters are still to be seen in the skies.

Fewer of the army's very heavy vehicles are in evidence on the streets, while brightly-coloured RUC cars are now in some districts which were previously considered too dangerous for non-armoured vehicles. Security checkpoints are now something of a rarity.

The decrease in terrorist activity means that more police officers are now available for traffic duties, which resulted in a rise in drink-driving detections over the Christmas period.

The RUC is itself a highly-militarised police force whose officers are quartered in highly-protected forts, travel in armoured Land Rovers and carry rifles and machine-guns. All these elements will remain visible even though the army will no longer be seen during the day. Nonetheless, the troop move represents an important milestone, both in practical terms and symbolically, in the long drawn out process of demilitarisation.