The watchtowers start coming down as Belfast reflects on IRA statement

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A thoughtful Belfast was yesterday absorbing the far-reaching implications of Thursday's IRA promises to disarm and halt illegality, promises that hold the potential to transform its future.

As befits a careful, buttoned-up city that has gone through more than three decades of conflict, it got on with business, many aware that the full effects of the move may take months to become apparent.

On the Protestant and Unionist side, opinion seemed reserved, with certainly no sense of celebration or joy that the IRA, for decades the deadly enemy of Unionism and its British link, had signalled that its war was over. " Well, we'll just wait and see," said a Protestant greengrocer. "I do want to think they mean it, and I really think in my heartthey may be sincere, but we need to wait for their actions."

His reaction was in line with the familiar Unionist approach in which such major moves are eventually tacitly accepted, although often after an initially neutral or even hostile response.

On the Catholic and nationalist Falls Road, by contrast, there was no sign of serious dissent following the IRA's move: rather, most people on the road expressed a warm welcome for it. Part of the reason for the lack of excited reaction is that violence and obvious paramilitary activity is at a low level almost everywhere in the city.

While republican and loyalist groups are still in existence, their presence is much less obvious than it was, although an exception has been a rise in loyalist activity in some areas in recent weeks.

This has meant that life has for years been regarded in most quarters as normal or close to normal, so that announcements such as the IRA's move are no longer regarded as matters of life and death.

Outside the city, the first signs of an official response to the republican initiative came along the South Armagh border, where the IRA killed so many soldiers that it was described by a British minister as "bandit country".

The army yesterday began dismantling a watchtower at Sugarloaf Mountain, saying other security installations at Forkhill and Newtownhamilton would also be removed.

South Armagh still has exceptional security arrangements, with police patrolling only with heavy army protection. A threat remains from dissident republicans who disapprove of the IRA's ceasefire.

The watchtowers have been in place for 20 years, allowing soldiers to carry out surveillance of the area in reasonable safety. The death toll in South Armagh fell after their construction in the mid-1980s. The sophisticated technology in the towers helped the army watch IRA movements. Their video and audio equipment, it is said, enabled troops to know what IRA activists had for breakfast, and what they said to their wives over their cornflakes.

Lieutenant-General Sir Reddy Watt said of the military run-down: "In light of yesterday's developments, the chief constable and I have decided that a further reduction in security profile is possible."

The local Sinn Fein MP, Conor Murphy, welcomed the moves on the part of the military, declaring: "People living in areas like South Armagh have lived with the negative effects of military occupation for too long.

"The start made today must be built upon. The demilitarisation of communities is an important element in consolidating the progress already made."

The security relaxation was, however, vehemently attacked by Unionists. Arlene Foster of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party said she was incensed: "It's criminally irresponsible of the Government to do this, given what has gone on in those border areas. The Government seem quite happy to act on words alone.

"It's startling that when the IRA give a statement saying they will stop what they should never have been doing that the Government acts so soon. "

The Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy added: "With the ink not even dry on the IRA statement, it is absolutely outrageous that the Government have decided to embark on such a major security scaled down. With ongoing IRA criminality in the area and the threat posed by dissident republicans this latest move is more than premature."

Unionist figures have always opposed the scaling down of security in border areas, where Protestants are usually in a minority, but a gradual rundown has been under way since the IRA's 1994 ceasefire. This has meant the disappearance of scores of army bases, some of which were major installations. At no point have the security forces found it necessary to reverse this process.

The overall aim is to reduce the army presence in Northern Ireland to a few thousand troops, aboutthe same strength as the garrison before the Troubles kicked off. At one stage, at the height of the Troubles in the 1970s, troop levels reached about 25,000. During the past decade, the number of troops has been steadily reduced, while the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been replaced by the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has a much higher percentage of Catholic officers.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, stressed yesterday that IRA activity would be closely monitored in the months ahead. He said: "It's up to the IRA to deliver and they will be watched and we will be scrutinising everything.

"By actively shutting down I don't just mean bullets and bombs, I mean punishment beatings, criminality, targeting and the robbing of banks."