Symbols of British 'occupation' will be demolished in response

The authorities will respond quickly to IRA decommissioning by beginning demolition of two of the army watchtowers which dominate much of the south Armagh border.

Watchtowers are strung throughout the rugged south Armagh landscape, in some ways resembling a string of outsized pylons. They have been regarded as a main line of defence against the IRA since they were erected in the mid-1980s.

Today their purpose is two-fold, in that they are said to be useful in maintaining surveillance of both the mainstream IRA and the breakaway group, the Real IRA.

The structures dominate much of the area, bristling with the most sophisticated cameras and listening devices.

But the view in senior security circles is that there is no sign of any IRA intention of returning to its campaign of violence, and that, even before yesterday, mainstream republicans were becoming ever more deeply embedded in political activity.

At the same time, however the view is that the IRA is still in existence and still involved in activities such as paramilitary training. Because of that, the army must maintain vigilance: "There is still a bear out there in the woods," one senior source said.

This attitude has produced resistance in the military to the idea of wholesale dismantling of the scores of security installations that are scattered across Northern Ireland.

That includes large and small army bases, look-out points, living accommodation and other outposts.

Following consultations with the RUC and army, the Government has said that, if the level of threat is reduced, four installations could be demolished almost immediately.

They are believed be two of the south Armagh towers, as well as another Co Armagh installation and an army base in Co Londonderry. More can be expected to follow, though exactly when has not been specified and no early programme of numerous closures is expected.

The extensive use of helicopters in south Armagh continues to generate local complaints, although the army is known to have made efforts to reduce flights.

The problem is that the military cannot routinely use road vehicles in the south Armagh area because of their susceptibility to landmine attacks.

While the IRA is not engaged in such activity, the Real IRA has attempted attacks, assembling a large bomb there some weeks ago. The Real IRA is a genuine complicating factor in that the organisation is not observing a ceasefire and continues to carry out occasional attacks on the security forces across the province.

Military numbers have been reduced by only a few thousand since the 1994 IRA and loyalist ceasefires, and extra troops have often been drafted in to cope with the possibility of disorder during the loyalist marching season each summer.

There has, however, been a drop in RUC numbers because hundreds of officers have taken advantage of lucrative early retirement provisions on offer as part of police reforms.

The reduced force has chalked up many thousands of hours in costly overtime while coping with the north Belfast disturbances during a fraught summer of protests.

But, to those living in the shadow of Armagh's military monoliths, demilitarisation cannot come quickly enough. Declan Fearon of the South Armagh farmers and residents committee lives directly underneath the fort at Faughill Mountain near the village of Jonesborough.

"Now that decommissioning has occurred there is absolutely no reason for having them here. I would expect them to begin destroying them immediately," he said.

"Life is intolerable here – the constant sound of army helicopters and the fact that they are constantly sitting watching your every move," he said.

"There is always going to be a threat from dissidents on both sides of the divide, but people in south Armagh haven't enjoyed the benefits of the peace process so far.

"The fact is the British Government has tinkered with the issue of demilitarisation and now this must end."

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