Thirty-eight years after they were first sent, the British Army is to pull out almost all its troops from Northern Ireland. “Operation Banner” which has become the longest continuous deployment in UK military history will formally end at midnight tonight, local time. A garrison of 5,000 soldiers will remain but security will become the responsibility of Northern Ireland’s police.
It was back in 1969 when the Army was sent as a last resort to re-establish order after rioting saw Protestant mobs set fire to Catholic homes. At first welcomed by nationalists – they were only expected to stay a few weeks – relations between civilians and the military quickly deteriorated.
Today’s Army chief, Lieutenant General Nick Parker: “We have had to work very carefully to overcome the IRA, there will be exactly the same challenges facing the army in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It’s not a rugby match though, we are not going to turn round and shake hands at the end of it. There has been a huge degree of sacrifice.”
Nationalist alienation from the military was increased when troops were used in the introduction of internment without trial and most of all with Bloody Sunday in 1972. The deaths of 14 civilians who were taking part in a protest march put an end to efforts to win nationalists hearts and minds.
At the height of the troubles there were around 27,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland and over 700 were killed. With today’s political settlement, it’s expected that many of the soldiers based in the province will soon be swapping the streets of Belfast for those of Baghdad.