British Take Paratroopers Off Ulster Security Detail
ANTI-TERRORIST security measures in Northern Ireland have been jolted by controversy surrounding one of Britain's elite Army units.
After violent clashes between troops of the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment and hostile local people, the unit has been withdrawn from sensitive security duties in the area, and its field commander has been relieved of his post.
A Ministry of Defense spokesman in London on Monday denied that Brig. Tom Longland, who was in command of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, was being moved to another command because of violent incidents between the Paras and residents of Coalisland, in the eastern part of County Tyrone.
But local political leaders said the Paras - perhaps the British Army's most effective combat troops - had been guilty of heavy-handed actions against Catholics in one of Northern Ireland's most politically sensitive areas.
Last week the Paras opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, injuring three people. The demonstrators claimed that the soldiers had been making unprovoked attacks on hotel bars in the area, which local residents described as retaliation for the maiming of a Paras officer in an IRA bomb attack the previous week. British authorities denied the claim.
On Sunday Jim Canning, a local independent councillor, said: "Ultimately the only solution has to be the total removal of the Paras. What happened at Coalisland was the culmination of events since the regiment arrived here in April." He described Paras methods as "aggressive and unsuited to security operations in a civil situation."
Brigadier Longland's removal was welcomed by Denis Haughey of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party. "Clearly there was something wrong in the way the security forces generally in this area were being directed," he said.
But in London a Defense Ministry spokesman said there had been no decision to restrict Parachute Regiment service in Northern Ireland. Reports from Coalisland, however, said that the Paras were no longer carrying out patrols and were doing traffic-control duties instead.
THE clashes at Coalisland provoked a demand by David Andrews, foreign affairs minister in the Irish government in Dublin, to completely withdraw the Paras from Ulster. But Michael Mates, the Northern Ireland law and order minister, rejected the call, describing Mr. Andrews's comments as "megaphone diplomacy."
The Paras are the most controversial of all the regiments to visit Northern Ireland. Tough and highly trained - their motto, Utrinque Paratus, means "ready for anything" - they have thousands of enemies in Catholic areas where the IRA is strongest. More than 20 years ago in Londonderry, the Paras' 1st Battalion shot dead 14 unarmed Catholics. The event became known as Bloody Sunday and still arouses fierce passions among supporters of the Irish republican cause.
The Paras have suffered heavy losses in Northern Ireland. Because of tension their presence there often creates, British authorities try to be sparing in their deployment.
Apart from other considerations, their use in Northern Ireland means they cannot be deployed in NATO or as part of Britain's strategic reserve.
The decision was taken to send the 3rd Battalion to the province earlier this year following an outbreak of bombings by the IRA in Belfast and murders by Loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary groups.
Their arrival in Coalisland quickly led to complaints from residents. Even before they arrived tensions were running high.
They rose sharply in February when British security forces shot dead four members of the IRA cornered after an attack on Coalisland police station.
Protestant politicians have privately expressed concern that the Paras were placed in a situation that inevitably brought them into direct conflict with local people.
Ken Maginnis, the Unionist member of parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said the soldiers could not be blamed for the violence, but added: "It is quite dreadful the way the situation is deteriorating in the area. Nothing is totally one-sided."
Mr. Maginnis said there had been a series of difficulties under Longland's command. "Perhaps Coalisland was the straw that broke the camel's back."