The Army says its policy has not changed and that women are not "active" components of what it describes as fire teams. But observers in the province say they have noticed more female soldiers operating on the front line as the Army has intensified its operations in Northern Ireland in the face of and upsurge in IRA attacks.
One of the sightings which sparked interest occurred recently in south Armagh, near where 23-year old Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was killed by a sniper on 12 February. During a day of intensive searches, a patrol of eight soldiers was moving through a middle-class suburb off Cathedral Road, Armagh. Two of them were women. When a passer-by expressed surprise, a male soldiers said "Oh, yes, mate. We've got loads of those now".
"They don't look like women in full battle kit," a witness said. "Because only their faces are visible. But one of them turned round and I saw it was a woman. Then another one stepped over a wall, and I could see it was a woman by the way she moved."
The witness said the soldiers spoke with English accents, suggesting they were from 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery - Lance Bombadier Restorick's unit - which has completed a six-month tour in the province.
An Army spokesman said women were not part of the fire team in infantry patrols, but wore helmets and body armour and carried personal weapons - the SA-80 rifle - for self-defence. Whereas the riflemen carry SA-80s with telescopic sights, everyone else has non-optical "iron sights", which women usually carry. He said women were not put in high-risk situations - for example, where search dogs were being used.
The presence of women patrolling in south Armagh is sensitive because IRA snipers have been targeting British troops. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army recently seized two high-powered Barrett sniper rifles - 5ft long, and firing a bullet half an inch in diameter over 2km, plus other weapons and ammunition in an operation two weeks ago. The IRA has been using the Barretts, which are effective precision weapons up to about a kilometre, since 1992.
Women now make up 6.1 per cent of the Army, and 70 per cent of the jobs in the Army are open to them, although 1991 guidelines prevent their employment in frontline roles in the infantry, armour and units of the artillery and engineers directly supporting them. Women are now part of artillery units.
However, the Army said, when artillery troops were employed as infantry in Northern Ireland, the same rules applied as to infantry, and women do not take an "active" role. The women would have been assigned to the patrol in case it had to search civilians.
The Army said it has long been standard practice for patrols which might have to set up vehicle checkpoints to have women with them. They often come from the locally recruited Royal Irish Regiment. Women also perform key roles in the Intelligence Corps and the Royal Military Police.
The Army has not gone out of its way to advertise women's security role in Ireland. On one occasion recently, a press photographer attempted to get a picture of a woman who was part of a British Army patrol. "Fuck off," she said, "Or we'll nick you". He thought better of it.Reuse content