The emergence of an internal army document concerning possible Northern Ireland demilitarisation last night fuelled speculation that the Royal Irish Regiment permanently based in Northern Ireland was to be disbanded.
Government sources maintained however that this would happen only in the context of "acts of completion by paramilitary groups".
Disbandment would not affect the Regiment's first battalion, which took part in the Gulf War under the command of the Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins, whose conduct is being examined by two inquiries, but rather the Regiment's three "home service battalions". The mainly Protestant unit has enthusiastic backing of Unionists, but republicans claim it is partisan. Some Unionists allege the Collins controversy is at least partly fuelled by the Regiment's critics, intent on causing its disbandment.
A government document published after unsuccessful political negotiations envisaged troop reductions and the closure of many military installations, though such moves were envisaged in the context of a greatly improved security situation.
An army document which has just emerged refers to the proposed rundown as Operation Banner, stating: "The end of Operation Banner will inevitably mean the disbandment of the Home Service element of the Royal Irish Regiment." Official sources have stressed this depends on the IRA in particular demonstrating that its campaign of violence was finally over.
Demilitarisation has proceeded steadily in recent years as paramilitary activity has gradually fallen. Earlier this month work began on dismantling two army watchtowers in south Armagh.
The authorities are adamant however that any decisions on RIR disbandment are a long way off. A Defence spokesman said that no final decision has been made, adding: "There is no document that has gone out that says any particular organisation is going to be got rid of or disbanded."
Democratic Unionist party spokesman Sammy Wilson declared: "Anyone who denies that this has already been arranged is either so naive that they have been totally misled by the Prime Minister or else they are part of the conspiracy of silence on this issue until such time as it is felt politically expedient to admit this is the case."Reuse content