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Six months with cockroaches for company: With fears growing that British troops will be overstretched abroad, David McKittrick reports on barracks in Northern Ireland, some of which are so uncomfortable that going on street patrol is a welcome escape

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THE TATTOOED Jocks drinking tea in the canteen were not inhibited by the presence of a gaggle of officers. 'This is a cockroach-infested hole,' one private said bluntly. 'It's bloody awful. It's not so bad when you're out there on the streets doing your job, but when you're back in here it's terrible.'

The Army would say improvements have been made, but another soldier chipped in: 'I was here two and a half years ago and it hasn't changed one bit. There's cockroaches everywhere. You wake up and they're all over the floor, in your bed sometimes.'

A room on the top floor had a badly stained carpet and greasy yellow walls. Grimy windows high on the walls let in some light and air. Paint peeled off the ceiling. Around the walls were eight narrow metal beds, five of them occupied by sleeping soldiers.

Yet conditions like these, in North Howard Street barracks, Belfast, could be a more frequent trial since the stationing of 2,400 British troops in Bosnia. The gap between battalions' tours of Northern Ireland has been reduced from the recommended 24 months to 15.

By the mid-1990s, under Government plans, army strength will be reduced by 37,000 to 119,000. In February, the Commons defence select committee expressed fears about 'overstretch' and claimed soldiers in Northern Ireland were living in poor conditions and working long hours.

In North Howard Street, some of the men stirred groggily as we walked in. An officer said 'go back to sleep', and they promptly did. Strewn on the floor were boots and packs, mess cans, radios, flak jackets. A plastic chair stood beside each bed, holding a clock, a radio, or an ashtray. There was a smell of sweat and grease. 'It's a lot worse in the summer,' an officer said.

Other rooms holding four or six soldiers were cramped, with beds and lockers jammed into a small space. Most men had their rifles by their beds, or stacked in a corner.

In many rooms a radio or television was switched on, even when men were sleeping. 'Old army trick,' an officer explained. 'If they keep it noisy all the time then they don't wake up when people clump in and out of the room.'

The soldiers said they worked 16 to 18 hours a day, either outside on foot or vehicle patrol or inside on other duties.

The NAAFI, which serves no alcohol, was smallish but serviceable. The canteen food looked reasonable. The shower area was refurbished this year and there is now a sauna and some sunbeds. But there is a sense of claustrophobia, of an old building pressed into service for an unsuitable purpose.

North Howard Street mill is a four-storey building erected 148 years ago between the Falls and the Shankill roads. It was never intended to last a century and a half, and certainly was not designed to serve as headquarters of the 1st battalion, the Queen's Own Highlanders, and house 19 officers, 35 senior NCOs and 190 men.

It gives the impression of being an emergency billet where soldiers have been hurriedly stacked until somewhere more suitable can be found. Yet North Howard Street mill has been an army base for two decades and there is no sign of it closing.

A mile or so up the road is Fort Whiterock, which houses more Queen's Own Highlanders. The purpose-built base sits perched on the edge of the mountain high above west Belfast. It is more spacious but also more open to attack, and complex constructions of anti- mortar mesh are everywhere.

Conditions here are rather better than in the mill, with more modern buildings, more space and more air. There is a mini-gym with well-used weight facilities. The canteen is brighter and more pleasant.

One soldier on his first tour of duty in Northern Ireland said: 'I thought it would be worse.' Another, a cook who was tenderising sizeable sirloin steaks for lunch, said: 'It's okay, it's not bad. I've saved loads of money here, because there's nothing to spend it on.'

One Jock, whose wall was plastered with revealing Polaroids of his girlfriend, said: 'The toilets are abysmal - we have to clean them when we come back off patrol. The washroom is all right, but there's only four washing machines and four driers for two companies. That's 280 men. Any time you go to use them there's a big queue, so I wind up doing it at four in the morning.' His pattern was 24 hours on followed by 12 off. Another soldier said he had had five hours off in the last 48, though this was exceptional.

From the outside, the bases look reasonably secure, but inside there are constant reminders that an attack could come at any time. There are signs warning soldiers not to loiter in the open air. The canteen is criss-crossed with walls to limit casualties from bomb blasts.

Asked how he regarded the danger, one said: 'Every time you walk out the gate you think, 'Christ, it could happen to me'.'

Asked whether he preferred foot or vehicle patrols, a soldier replied: 'The guys prefer foots because time passes quicker and there's a better feeling because there's a bit of bad feeling with the RUC. The RUC don't keep you in the picture.'

A sergeant-major later said that that soldier may have had a bad experience with some RUC constable, but that in general co-operation was first-class.

Northern Ireland has more than 100 army bases of various sizes and functions, many of them bearing little resemblance to North Howard Street mill and Fort Whiterock. Many of the 12,000 regular troops in Northern Ireland live in comfortable accommodation.

Just outside Belfast, for example, stands Palace Barracks. Here soldiers live, many of them with their families, in pleasant housing estates and modern blocks. NCOs have rooms which would not be out of place in a two-star hotel, while soldiers share four-man rooms with lots of space.

The perimeter is closely guarded, but inside the atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful. The sprawling complex has its own swimming pool, playing fields, churches and community centre. This is home for several thousand people, soldiers and their families, who live here for at least two years.

They leave the base and shop and eat in local towns. Children attend local schools, and in some areas families live not in the base but out in the local community.

But the Highlanders in North Howard Street mill and Fort Whiterock, and in other hardline areas such as south Armagh are in the front line of the undeclared war, and very different rules apply. Off- duty soldiers are generally not allowed off the base, for even when they are not on duty they are on permanent stand-by. Tours of duty last only six months, for the soldiers are pushed close to the limit by the constant danger, long hours and rough and ready conditions.

If North Howard Street mill was a hotel it would be shut down by public health inspectors. But it is in an excellent strategic position, close to the centre of the IRA's Falls Road heartland, and it does not make military sense to close it. In 20 years dozens of units have passed through its doors, and many more seem destined to serve six-month sentences in this dark, satanic mill.

(Photographs omitted)