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Unionists Feel Threatened by N. Ireland Plan

Special to The Times

British plans for halving the number of troops in Northern Ireland threaten the safety of Protestants and could delay progress in the province’s stalled peace process, Protestant unionist leaders said Tuesday.

In response to the Irish Republican Army’s pledge last week to end its armed struggle and give up its weapons, the British army said it would cut the number of troops to the lowest point since Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” erupted in 1969.

Hard-line Democratic Unionists said Tuesday that it could take two years for the peace process to lead to power sharing with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political ally.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader, said the British government would “pay the price” for its “surrender to the IRA” and “betrayal” of Protestant unionists, who could indefinitely boycott the peace process. Paisley is slated to meet today with Peter Hain, Northern Ireland’s secretary of state, and with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday.

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Paisley said the government would face the “righteous indignation” of Protestants for cooperating with “the leaders of murderers and the allies of thieves to carry out a plan which will leave Ulster an easy prey to terrorist activity.”

As the dismantling of an observation post atop a high-rise apartment building began in Catholic west Belfast, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams dismissed unionist threats to prolong the peace process.

“It is time to move on with the peace process and restore the political institutions,” Adams said, referring to Northern Ireland’s suspended legislature.

Adams said Blair must tell the Democratic Unionists that the landmark 1998 Good Friday agreement “is going to be delivered and that the opportunities presented by last week’s IRA initiative have to be seized.”

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The British government, which has directly ruled Northern Ireland since power sharing collapsed in 2002, is expected to begin separate talks with the deadlocked parties next month. Serious negotiations are not expected to begin until next year.

The IRA was blamed for killing nearly half of the 3,700 people who died during the Troubles. But Northern Ireland has become peaceful enough, and sufficient confidence has been built between the British government and Sinn Fein for a dramatic military withdrawal, said defense analyst Christopher Langton of London’s Institute of Strategic Studies.

“This is a prepared plan to offer incentive to the IRA,” he said. “It’s an, ‘If you do this, we’ll immediately do that,’ type of situation. It doesn’t mean it will go ahead if the IRA doesn’t disarm.”

The pullout will free infantry needed more in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Northern Ireland, Langton said.

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Britain is expected to send more troops to Afghanistan early next year, when it assumes command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expanding mission.

British plans also call for three locally recruited Royal Irish Regiment battalions, almost entirely Protestant and detested by Roman Catholics, to be disbanded. During the Troubles, a few dozen members were convicted of killing Catholics and aiding loyalist paramilitaries.

“These are people who stood in harm’s way in some very dark times,” Mark Campbell, regimental colonel, told the BBC. “It is partly due to their sacrifice and effort that those who would use violence against the democratic process have now rejected violence.”

About 5,000 British troops are to withdraw over two years.

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Helicopter flights will stop, military support for police will be phased out, and all watchtowers in the IRA stronghold of south Armagh will come down, according to the plans.

The IRA must keep its promise to disarm for the military withdrawal to unfold, Hain said. “My first and overriding priority

David Burnside, an Ulster Unionist, said the plan was “madness.”

“It’s a major mistake to weaken the defense of Northern Ireland merely on the promises of the republican movement,” he said. “This jeopardizes the peace process.”

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Protestants feel abandoned by the British, and they do not feel safe in heavily Catholic areas, said Richard English, professor of politics at Queen’s University in Belfast, the provincial capital.

“Unlike the British, they don’t trust the IRA to keep its word, and they see these promises as concessions,” he said. “They point to the past, when republican prisoners were released and the IRA didn’t disarm. They feel like they are the ones who have always been loyal, and they’re being shoddily treated.”


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