25 October 2001 Edition

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Ógra to visit occupied South Armagh

Ógra Shinn Féin activists will be descending on south Armagh this weekend for educationals, historical speeches and a chance to see first hand the effects of the British military occupation of the area. Ógra member CRÍOSTÓIR Ó RÁLAIGH went up for a sneak preview.

"Hang on a second, here they come again". Our conversation is momentarily interrupted by the rhythmic hum of helicopter blades slicing their path through the early morning's stillness. I've been speaking to Toni Carragher, spokesperson for the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Committee (SAFRC), for no more than 20 minutes by the time the second aerial military patrol passes by. The reality of living under military occupation begins to sink in when you realise that this is an hourly event.

Perhaps military domination rather than military occupation is a more appropriate term when it comes to describing its effects on the ordinary residents of this part of Ireland. "People are being stopped, searched, harassed, intimidated. The RUC are continually trying to recruit informers to spy on the people here," says Carragher. " When, for instance, a young person is brought into an RUC barracks because they haven't paid their car insurance, the first thing that is put to them is to become an informer."

I was struck by the all-encompassing nature of the occupation. It is this that provides the main source of resentment here. Every aspect of the inhabitants' lives is affected.

Traffic is held up by checkpoints. Children are late to school. There is the constant noise of helicopter flights, plus the basic degradation of living under the thumb of a foreign occupying military force.

The economic setbacks are devastating. According to the South Armagh Farmers and Residents' Committee, from 1994 until mid-2000 over 40,000 livestock were killed as a result of low-flying helicopters. This averages out at a staggering 110 deaths per week. The deaths are ongoing. In an area heavily reliant upon rural economic growth, this has had a devastating effect. While other regions in the north of Ireland have benefited from economic investment, particularly from the USA, since the signing of the GFA, south Armagh has been left bereft of any such investment.

Since 1994, the situation on the ground, and in the air, has changed.

"There has been an increase in the activities of the British Army since '94" Carragher explains. There are over 3,000 British soldiers and RUC personnel, one for every eight citizens. "It's a perfect training ground for them, where they face a hostile population.

"The people of the south are not aware of what is happening here. I would invite the people of the 26 Counties to come up here, and to take a look around. It is the only way to get your head around what is going on."

And getting your head around it is really what is needed. There is the incongruous cold, black-grey steel of the fortress against the lush greenery of the countryside. The watchtowers peer unnaturally out over the hills in a Star-Warsesque manner, and before you realise it you're enveloped once again by the steady, dull reverberations of rotating helicopter blades.

Any Ógra Shinn Féin members interested in attending the weekend can contact Damien Lawlor, 04890 615 900 or Ray Lakes 085 715 0535. Billets will be provided.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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