Thursday 04 June UK News feed. As the helicopter banks over the heavily-fortified Army base at Crossmaglen in the heart of South Armagh's bandit country, incoming troops are welcomed by a 60ft-long greeting picked out in white on a brick wall. Visible from hundreds of feet in the air, the message accurately reflects the gallows humour that has become almost standard equipment for the British soldiers stationed here. For Crossmaglen - XMG to the troops - is one of the most dangerous postings they will face. It was here that a team of snipers killed 12 members of the security forces in the s and where the explosives were mixed for the Docklands, Manchester and Bishopsgate bombs. Even now, almost five years into the peace negotiations, the Army remains an unwanted force, still the prime target for those republicans who will never accept a British presence in the Six Counties.
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Thursday 04 June UK News feed. As the helicopter banks over the heavily-fortified Army base at Crossmaglen in the heart of South Armagh's bandit country, incoming troops are welcomed by a 60ft-long greeting picked out in white on a brick wall. Visible from hundreds of feet in the air, the message accurately reflects the gallows humour that has become almost standard equipment for the British soldiers stationed here.
For Crossmaglen - XMG to the troops - is one of the most dangerous postings they will face. It was here that a team of snipers killed 12 members of the security forces in the s and where the explosives were mixed for the Docklands, Manchester and Bishopsgate bombs. Even now, almost five years into the peace negotiations, the Army remains an unwanted force, still the prime target for those republicans who will never accept a British presence in the Six Counties.
Last week as three people, including a senior member of Sinn Fein, were charged with spying - precipitating the almost certain suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly - that risk increased.
The threat of bomb and mortar attacks are officially declared "high": that from snipers and car bombs is lower. RUC dismay over deadlock plans. Watchtowers become installation art. Sinn Fein mob attack towers. Return to direct rule on the cards. Decision day for Ulster. At the same time, however, the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment - currently on a six-month tour of duty in South Armagh - find that their ability to defend themselves is being eroded.
As part of the process of "normalisation" they are required to melt into the shadows: they must not interact with civilians, or, if possible, even be seen. Their role is to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the cross-community force that replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is no simple job. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in , people have been killed and 7, injured in terrorist-related incidents in Northern Ireland.
There have been bombings, shootings and 1, people have been charged with terrorist offences. Police claim that they are suffering their worst crisis of morale since the start of the Troubles. More than officers are on sick leave and the force remains severely under strength.
Into all this come 2 Para - the terrorists' top target, the police officers' only protection, but unable to fight back as they have been trained to do. Now, as the political tension increases, the talk is of ensuring that they do not cross any lines. The soldiers are reminded of the importance of a "proportional response" and "community relations". It is hard to walk this tightrope when even the most mundane of police duties, such as issuing a summons, becomes a complex military operation involving helicopters and an escort of at least 12 fully armed soldiers.
It is still too dangerous for the security forces in South Armagh to travel by road. All military operations have to be carried out on foot. The only safe form of transport is by helicopter. The men of 2 Para arrived a month ago. They have been told by the intelligence agencies that terrorists plan a "spectacular" attack against them to boost terrorist credibility and encourage disenchanted members of the IRA to defect to dissident republican groups. Tension inside the military bases of Bessbrook Mill, a bleak, grey Victorian factory, and its smaller out-stations of Crossmaglen and Forkhill, is high.
Lt Col James Bashall, the urbane commander of 2 Para and a veteran of seven tours in Ulster, remains unruffled but does not attempt to disguise the difficulties ahead. We will have to be vigilant but we will have to get the balance right. As we prepare to depart on a patrol a mile from the border with the Irish Republic the scale of that challenge become clear.
Every soldier has had to be briefed in minute detail on the potential trouble spots, the areas of greatest risk and even the names of terrorists they may encounter as they patrol through Crossmaglen.
As we wait for the helicopters, each soldier checks and re-checks his equipment: weapons, magazines, radios. Nothing is left to chance. Two Lynx helicopters can be heard approaching but just as we move towards the landing zone, the platoon commander, year-old 2nd Lt Richard Holmes - who joined the regiment in August - cups his radio earpiece as a message is relayed from the operations room.
A look of concern spreads across his face before he disappears back inside the bunker. Lt Holmes reappears and heads towards his two corporals then issues a new set of orders.
We're going here," and he points to a spot on the map. The corporals have only seconds to rebrief their soldiers before the first helicopter arrives. Once in the air there is no sense of relief over the abandoned patrol.
The Paras are aware this could be a classic "come on" - an event arranged by terrorists to draw them into an ambush. As the helicopters land, the soldiers jump out and bolt for cover, scouring the countryside for suspicious activity. Each soldier seeks out a position which will provide him with shelter from attack but will allow him to observe the surrounding terrain. Meanwhile, on the road before us, the police constable goes about his duties, gently questioning the two drivers.
I kneel down beside one of the soldiers. Without looking at me, he says: "This makes me twitchy. We're too open to attack. On top of that, the rules of "normalisation" mean that soldiers are not allowed to apply face camouflage, wear helmets or body armour - or even to aim their weapon sights on potential targets. The Paras are highly trained troops and although they obey the rules to the letter, the tension and concern is etched on their faces.
Constantly changing their positions so that a sniper can not get a fix on their position is the only tactic open to them. It is a full 30 minutes before the comforting sound of the helicopter blades can be heard. I turn to the police constable, a genial and calm officer who wishes not to be identified, and ask him what he thinks the future holds.
He points to a large expensive looking house on a hill and, smiling, he tells me it belongs to an IRA man who has become a multi-millionaire through smuggling diesel. He turns around and says: "And over there lives Michael Caraher, he was part of a team who murdered Restorick the last British soldier to be killed by terrorists in Northern Ireland.
He was jailed for years, but he's free now after serving just 16 months. We are up against it, but we won't give up. Lt Col Bashall, who recently returned from Afghanistan, is equally optimistic - but aware of the responsibility carried by him and each of his men.
Ten years ago the mission was to kill or capture terrorists and assist the RUC in the defeat of terrorism. Now we are charged with maintaining security while the Good Friday Agreement is put in place. If we fail to do our job the police service may falter - and then everything which has been gained since could collapse. Terms and Conditions. Style Book. Weather Forecast. Accessibility links Skip to article Skip to navigation. This is IRA bandit country.
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'Bandit country' : [the IRA and South Armagh]
South Armagh was described as 'Bandit Country' by Merlyn Rees when he was Northern Ireland Secretary and for nearly three decades it has been the most dangerous posting in the world for a British soldier. Toby Harnden has stripped away the myth and propaganda associated with South Armagh to produce one of the most compelling and important books of the Troubles. Drawing on secret documents and interviews in South Armagh's recent history, he tells the inside story of how the IRA came close to bringing the British state to its knees. For the first time, the identities of the men behind the South Quay and Manchester bombings are revealed. Toby Harnden details the violent history of the region - which includes a tradition of government Toby Harnden. If you are to read only one book about the modern IRA, this should be it' Irish Times South Armagh was described as 'Bandit Country' by Merlyn Rees when he was Northern Ireland Secretary and for nearly three decades it has been the most dangerous posting in the world for a British soldier.
Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh, by Toby Harnden (Coronet Lir; £6.99 in UK)
In case anyone didn't know, Bandit Country is south Armagh, a sobriquet bestowed on the area and its inhabitants by the jelly-spined Merlyn Rees way back in It was here that its armaments were perfected; it was here that the massive Canary Wharf bomb was prepared; and it was from here that the IRA planned and executed its biggest single strike against the British security forces, when 18 members of the Parachute Regiment were blown up at Narrow Water in August Toby Harnden has done a masterful job of explaining why south Armagh is special. He traces the history of the area back as far as Plantation times. He steers a balanced course and writes objectively.
This is IRA bandit country
During a minute exercise at Meigh, a dozen men in combat jackets and ski masks paraded through the village of people, stopped cars at the crossroad and demanded identification from drivers. The warning described two local men as drug dealers who would be killed unless they left Northern Ireland within 24 hours. Residents said the two went into hiding after the roadblock. Police would not comment or say whether the men were suspects. A dairy farmer stopped at the roadblock said later he would have spat on the leaflet - but he was too afraid.
Bandit Country the Ira and South Armagh by Harnden Toby