February 13, 2007 / 4:18 PM / 13 years ago

Last of Northern Ireland's watch towers removed

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Britain removed the last of its armoured watch towers in Northern Ireland on Tuesday in a significant symbolic step towards erasing the visible reminders of the province’s 30-year conflict.

A British soldier from the Royal Engineers Regiment starts work to dismantle the watch tower at Newtonhamilton in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in this October 25, 2001 file photo. Britain removed the last of its armoured watch towers in Northern Ireland on Tuesday in a significant symbolic step towards erasing the visible reminders of the province's 30-year conflict. REUTERS/Jeff J Mitchell

Improved security conditions following the 1997 cease-fire by the IRA have seen Britain drastically reduce its military presence in Northern Ireland.

It began dismantling the watch posts that dotted the countryside and towered over small towns and villages in 2000 and has pledged to end all military support for the Northern Ireland police force on July 31 this year.

The iron-clad, cube-shaped observation post, or sangar, removed by crane on Tuesday had stood 20 feet (6.5 metres) above the army-backed Crossmaglen police station in County Armagh.

“This was the last significant (military) structure in south Armagh,” said army spokesman Mervyn Wynne Jones.

All British troops will leave the Crossmaglen police station by the end of July.

“This is at the heart of what used to be called ‘Bandit Country’,” Wynne Jones said. “Times move on, it’s tremendous.”

In many areas of Northern Ireland, police who once patrolled in armoured vehicles are now seen on foot or on bikes but in some Catholic strongholds, where opposition to British rule and a Protestant-dominated police force remains strongest, police continue to operate with a military escort.

In a major shift, however, members of Sinn Fein voted last month to end decades of opposition to the police, removing a major obstacle to London and Dublin’s plans for restoring a power-sharing government in the province.

Irish nationalists seeking to create a united Ireland fought security services and pro-British guerrillas over three decades in a conflict in which 3,600 people were killed.

At the height of the conflict in 1972 the British military presence in Northern Ireland stood at 27,000 troops. There are now just 7,700 British military personnel in the province and that number is due to fall below 5,000 by the end of July.

Violence largely ended with a 1998 peace deal but political discord saw the collapse of a power-sharing assembly in 2002.

Elections for a new assembly will take place on March 7 but Unionist politicians say they need to see proof of Sinn Fein’s commitment to back the police before agreeing to share power with it by a March 26 deadline.

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