One of Ireland's most respected soldiers has rejected a proposal that Irish troops should be used to plug the security gap left by a large-scale British Army withdrawal from south Armagh.
Retired Lt-Gen Gerry McMahon said the Irish Defence Forces would be unable to cope with the extra demands put on them by a massive scaling down of the British military presence in the most dangerous part of Northern Ireland. McMahon, who was chief-of-staff of the defence forces between 1995 and 1998, said such a commitment would mean Ireland closing down its United Nations peacekeeping operations and its commitment to the European Union's rapid reaction force.
Republicans are calling for widespread demilitarisation in south Armagh in return for further IRA moves to decommission its arsenal of illegal weapons.
But British Army commanders have warned Tony Blair that if they withdraw and troops or police are killed by dissident republicans as a result, it will be the Prime Minister, not the military, who must take responsibility.
McMahon also told The Observer he was confident Sinn Fein would decouple from the IRA as the price for entering a coalition government in the Republic.
At the end of last year Irish government officials suggested that if the British withdrew large numbers of troops and tore down hilltop spy posts in south Armagh, Dublin would deploy extra soldiers on the Co Louth side of the border.
McMahon, however, said that with 8,500 full-time troops, Ireland had one of the smallest armed forces in the EU. Despite spending less on defence than almost any other European country, the Irish forces had relatively large commitments to UN peacekeeping from East Timor to Kosovo and Lebanon.
'We have three battalions and one armoured squadron stretched along the border. There is a virtual brigade there and I think that is quite sufficient for the job we are currently doing,' he said.
'The army certainly can't move into south Armagh because it's still UK territory and that's where all the action is. And if we were given extra commitments on the border, the only way we could do that is to shift our troops away from UN peace keeping missions and re-think our proposed role in the EU's rapid reaction force. At present we could not plug the gap. The numbers are just not there,' he said.
The general, who served in the Irish Defence Forces for almost half a century, poured scorn on the Dublin government's new Defence White Paper, particularly its assertion that armed republican violence north of the border was over.
'The military have been telling the politicians that it's not settled yet and that our troops are going to be needed there for a long time to come,' said McMahon.
The conflicting demands of domestic security or aid to the civil power, UN peacekeeping and plans to send an Irish battalion to the EU force were putting enormous strain on the military, he added.
The border between south Armagh and Louth has the most active and militant republicans in Ireland. During the Troubles the region was the most dangerous posting in the world for British troops. It is now a stronghold for the dissident republican terrorist group, the Real IRA, which launched its disastrous bomb attack on Omagh in August 1998 from that area.
McMahon said: 'If I was still chief-of-staff and the politicians asked me for more troops along the border I would tell them we don't have enough.'
As the prospect of an Irish general election this year becomes more likely, political leaders in the Republic are turning their attention to Sinn Fein's fortunes and the possibility of the IRA's political wing entering a coalition.
McMahon said the party would have to redefine its relationship with the IRA and declare sole allegiance to one army, the Irish Defence Forces, to enter a government. He was optimistic that this would eventually happen.
'I am convinced Sinn Fein will be pragmatic about this, in the same way that Fianna Fail was following the civil war. When Fianna Fail eventually came into the Dail and then government, they recognised the sole legitimacy of the Irish national army. These were people who were deadly enemies of the army only a few years before during the civil war.
'There is historical precedence for this, and I have no reason to think it will be any different this time,' he said.
Sinn Fein's desire to be in government on both sides of the border is tempered by the Republic's constitution, which Eamon de Valera drew up in 1936. It says that ministers, civil servants and soldiers must swear loyalty to the state's defence forces.
Bertie Ahern, the taoiseach, has also insisted that Sinn Fein must resolve its relationship with the IRA before it can enter any coalition with his party, Fianna Fail.