Army to dismantle its Armagh watchtowers

The British army's remaining five hilltop watchtowers in south Armagh will be taken down by early May, The Observer has learnt.

The British army's remaining five hilltop watchtowers in south Armagh will be taken down by early May, The Observer has learnt. The military posts, which Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet ordered built in the border region in the mid-Eighties, are being dismantled over the next three to four months, according to senior security sources. The bases on three hilltops at Crotlieve near Forkhill, Camlough Mountain and Faughil Mountain are to be pulled down by the 22nd Regiment (The Cheshires).

The sources said there were two reasons for speeding up the de-militarisation process (Operation Banner) in what was the most dangerous region for British soldiers in Europe. One said: 'The first thing is that on the ground the police are carrying out normal duties often without any military support. They are handing out speeding tickets and checking for drunk drivers in south Armagh; they are riding about on bikes in Newry.

'The second reason, which the government and MoD will never admit, is that they are speeding things up to help the Sinn Fein leadership. The government is privately worried that the recent spy scandals inside the republican movement has undermined Gerry Adams's authority. They [Adams and his colleagues] need some visible small victories - getting rid of the spy posts is an obvious way of giving the republicans something to cheer about.'

Officially the army is stressing that the re-deployment of units from The Cheshires from their base in Ballykinlar, Co Derry, into south Armagh is simply to replace the last Roulement Battalion, which currently occupies the posts as well as the nearby military base at Bessbrook Mill. An army spokesman said the target date for full normalisation was still August 2007. He said the Cheshires, who are being redeployed, would still provide military support for the PSNI in the region.

At the height of the British military presence there were 18 watchtowers in south Armagh. One of the key reasons for constructing the posts from 1986 was to watch Thomas 'Slab' Murphy, the then-IRA chief-of-staff whom MI5 once classified as the most dangerous terrorist in Europe. Two of the posts overlooked the millionaire smuggler's farm, which straddles the Irish border.

Contributor

Henry McDonald, Ireland editor

The GuardianTramp

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