Low profile for Army after violence ends: Defence ministers are considering plans for scaling down the military presence in Ulster if the IRA agrees to a ceasefire. Colin Brown reports

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The Independent Online
CONTINGENCY PLANS for scaling down the presence of British troops after 24 years on the streets of Northern Ireland are being considered by ministers, if the IRA agrees to a cessation of violence.

There would be no dramatic pull-out of troops, but defence ministers are preparing other options for lowering the profile of soldiers in Ulster. They will be withdrawn to barracks and replaced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in areas where there is perceived to be no threat.

The soldiers would also be told to scale down their weaponry to present a less hostile image. They would replace their distinctive steel battle helmets with berets; their heavy rifles would be replaced by side arms in many cases; and heavy armoured vehicles would be withdrawn.

The IRA has been told that a cessation of violence would be matched by a scaling down of British troops through the secret lines of communication, which are expected to be used this weekend to give explanations to the Downing Street declaration demanded by the IRA and Sinn Fein.

A cessation of violence would herald a wider use of measures to scale down the presence of the armed forces in Belfast which is already going on in some limited areas. 'It would be very gradual, nothing dramatic, but it would be significant,' one ministerial source said.

The scaling down of the British forces would be a milestone in easing the security situation in Belfast. The troops were sent to Northern Ireland to help the RUC protect the nationalist community in August, 1969, after rioting in the Bogside area of Londonderry. However, the upsurge of violence led to the forming of the Provisional IRA. Supporters of the 'Troops Out' campaign are likely to renew their demands for a full-scale withdrawal of the 19,000 troops in Northern Ireland. But ministers point out that about 7,000 of the troops are Irish.

Troops Out campaigners believe the troops have intensified the troubles. Some point to Bloody Sunday, on 30 January 1972, when 13 men were shot dead by the troops during disturbances in Londonderry. However, the removal of troops, even during a cessation of violence, would unnerve the Unionist majority. The Prime Minister's Office yesterday said the Government would keep vigilant 'until we get a ceasefire. We must not and will not let our guard down one iota and will not do so on the security front'.

Downing Street sources warned the IRA that the declaration was not negotiable. The IRA is expected to seek further compromises in the coming days, but the Prime Minister's Office said it was a declaration of policy between governments, which was not open to amendment.

Ministers are adamant that there is no room for further compromises on the side of the British government, which is facing growing concern among unionist Tory MPs at the extent of the compromise already on offer.