Role of soldiers protecting the RUC under question: David McKittrick reports on the view that the troops in Ulster could be better used

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Indy Politics
COMMENTS by the former defence minister, Archie Hamilton, that the number of troops serving in Northern Ireland could be reduced are being interpreted in military circles as a coded call for a tougher security policy in the province.

Mr Hamilton said at the weekend that increasing the number of troops in Ulster had brought no obvious reduction in terrorist offences.

According to security sources, it is accepted that the terrorist threat, in particular from the IRA, remains grave and that considerable resources are required to counter it. But the sources said Mr Hamilton was reflecting a widespread belief within the Ministry of Defence and among officers serving in Northern Ireland that the 19,000 regular and locally recruited troops there could be better-used.

The view is that too many military resources are tied down in the role of protecting the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which has the lead in combating terrorism, rather than conducting pro-active operations against the IRA.

Security sources report 'tremendous frustration' among brigade and battalion commanders that so many man- hours are spent in static guard duties and in accompanying the RUC. Many officers advocate a much more aggressive military posture.

One source said: 'There is an argument that you can go on pouring the military in and all they do is get more and more static jobs guarding policemen and are therefore more at risk from providing targets for the IRA to attack.'

From the Government's point of view there is a strong financial argument for increasing the number of soldiers rather than the number of policemen. Soldiers work long hours and the Army does not pay overtime. The average RUC constable, by contrast, earns pounds 32,000 per year and it is estimated that one policeman costs the same as four soldiers.

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