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24 September 1998 Edition

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Mowlam challenged on South Armagh

At the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in York this week Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín o Caoláin raised with British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam the deteriorating situation in South Armagh and the urgent need for demilitarisation. In the brief exchange Dr Mowlam simply repeated the stock answer that a de-escalation of the military presence would depend on the ``level of threat''. We carry here the text of a letter to Dr Mowlam sent by Deputy O Caoláin in response to their exchange.


Dear Secretary of State,

I wish to emphasise the vital importance of demilitarisation. I raised demilitarisation at the 15th Plenary Session of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Cavan in March of this year and I make no apology for doing so again. Regrettably the lack of progress on this front makes it essential.

I have been very specific in singling out South Armagh because undoubtedly this is the place where the need for demilitarisation is greatest. There have been many low points in the peace process, many bad patches on the road to agreement, and also many high points and successes, but for the people of South Armagh the story of the past four years has been one of unrelenting frustration and disappointment.

When the peace process began in earnest in 1994 they had a right to expect that at least some of the burden would be lifted from the most heavily garrisoned area in the Six Counties. In fact their plight got worse and the period has seen increased British military activity in South Armagh.

There are a total of 33 look-out posts and five joint British Army/RUC military bases within a 20-mile radius in South Armagh. There is an unremitting traffic of helicopters into and out of these 38 installations every day.

Bessbrook in South Armagh is one of the busiest heli-ports in the world with British military helicopters taking off and landing there every few minutes. The five roads into the village are blocked by permanant British Army vehicle checkpoints. The residents are subjected to persistent disruption and harassment by members of the British Army.

Since I raised demilitarisation last March the situation for the people of Bessbrook has actually deteriorated. On 12 and 13 August British troops erected a 25ft high corrugated steel wall and concrete bollards in the village. These new fortifications on Fountain St and Greenan St reduced them to single-lane traffic. Since February 1997 the village's High Street has been closed for 12 hours of the day with a gate erected by the British Army. This is a small rural village in which people have to live and work and go to school.

The community in this village, like those throughout the greater South

Armagh area, feel utterly abandoned. They have been patient and persevering in their good will for political progress but they have seen no tangible benefits whatsoever from the peace process or the Good Friday Agreement.

When they have raised this with the British government they have received the stock answer that the military presence is related to the level of threat. There is no recognition that the British military presence itself constitutes a threat. Indeed it constitutes more than a threat; it is a daily violation of peace.

The normalisation of South Armagh cannot come about without the withdrawal of the British army from the area. Citing Omagh as an excuse for lack of progress on demilitarisation in this area is unacceptable; holding the community to ransom is also unacceptable.

There have been positive announcements of a measure of military de-escalation in Belfast and South Derry but regrettably it seems that regarding South Armagh the seucurocrat mindset holds sway. Taking your own advice on other problems in the peace process, it is time that this issue was looked at in a fresh way. It is my contention that recognising the importance of significant movement forward in the demilitarisation of South Armagh is a key and essential element that will anchor the peace process in that area.

On 29 April last I brought a deputation from the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Committee to meet An Taoiseach and he subsequently met with the British Prime Minister in Brussels on 1 May and emphasised the need for military de-escalation in South Armagh. The Prime Minister undertook to examine the situation. I ask what the result of that examination was and when the people of South Armagh are going to be allowed to benefit from this peace process?

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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