Blair fails to stop Black Watch being merged after Iraq mission

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Tony Blair is expected to face embarrassment today after apparently failing in his attempts to pressure defence chiefs to alter plans for the merger of Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, in a reorganisation of the Army.

Tony Blair is expected to face embarrassment today after apparently failing in his attempts to pressure defence chiefs to alter plans for the merger of Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, in a reorganisation of the Army.

The Prime Minister is believed to have asked senior officials, including General Sir Mike Jackson, the chief of the general staff, to modify the plans to save political embarrassment. Downing Street is believed to have been deeply apprehensive about the public relations ramifications of the Scottish regiments losing their historic identity in the wake of the controversial deployment of the Black Watch to central Iraq in support of American forces.

During a Downing Street meeting, Mr Blair is reported to have asked General Jackson to "get me out of a hole". The general is said to have bluntly responded: "Selection and retention of aim is a fundamental principle of war."

Mr Blair's intervention received favourable publicity in Scottish newspapers following No 10-inspired briefings. But the military hierarchy was deeply annoyed at as what they saw as an attempt to browbeat them into accepting changes.

There was also suspicion within the military about reports that the Queen would like the Black Watch preserved emanated from Downing Street. She was said to be particularly interested because the Queen Mother had sentimental attachment to the regiment.

But the military have managed to fight off any major alterations to the changes in structure, defence sources say. Five Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, will form a new "super-regiment". The individual regiments will keep their names, but as battalions. The new regiment is expected to be headquartered in Scotland, something not envisaged in the original plans.

Non-Scottish regiments will also be affected in the Ministry of Defence plans to reduce the infantry from 40 to 36 battalions. The ones said to be most affected are the Devonshire & Dorsets and the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire & Wiltshire Regiment.

The plans, to be announced by Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, today have been approved by the executive committee of the Army Board, headed by General Jackson. Its other members include Lieutenant-General Sir Alistair Irwin, adjutant-general and formerly of the Black Watch, General Sir Timothy Granville-Chapman, commander-in-chief land, and Major-General David Richards, who led British forces in Sierra Leone and East Timor.

General Jackson has been among the foremost proponents of the changes, forcefully arguing that the Army needed to adapt and be more flexible to meet the demands of conflict in the post-Cold War era.

But there has been criticism that General Jackson's three-battalion Parachute Regiment, has escaped any changes. Lack of recruits was given as a main reason for amalgamation. But the 1st and 3rd Paras are, respectively, 6 and 5 per cent under strength. The Black Watch is 5 per cent under strength.

The changes will be made until significant numbers of troops can be withdrawn from Northern Ireland. It had been envisaged this will happen under a peace deal, and power being handed back to Stormont. But the collapse of the putative agreement over the issue of photographing IRA weapons being destroyed will delay the implementation of the plans.

The plans were to have been announced by Mr Hoon on Monday, but this was changed to today after representations by politicians and the military.

Scottish Labour MPs have repeatedly stressed to Downing Street that plans to merge the historic regiments would be deeply unpopular, and English one had mounted a belated offensive against amalgamation.

Comments