By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The last British Army foot patrol has taken place in Belfast and all soldiers in the city have been returned to barracks. Helicopters will remain overhead, however, with armored-vehicle patrols still roaming the streets.
Five hundred troops are expected to leave Northern Ireland within weeks. Others are expected to follow them back to Britain in the months to come.
In pouring rain, Sgt. Gareth Bishop, aged 27 and a member of the Staffordshire Regiment, led the final 12-man patrol out of Woodbourne Barracks in nationalist West Belfast last Saturday morning.
After patrolling in Lenadoon, where residents cheered and set off firecrackers, Bishop led them back into the barracks and, with a final wave, closed the door on what is intended to be the last British Army foot patrol in the city after nearly 30 years.
The British Army first arrived in Derry at 5 p.m. on Aug. 14, 1969, when the then Labor prime minister, Harold Wilson, judged that the RUC was exhausted and could not hold out in the "Battle of the Bogside."
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The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had already decided to widen the front from Derry. Loyalists gathered on the Shankill in Belfast and chaos spread, with the British Army arriving in the city at tea time on Aug. 15.
Barricades were up on the Falls Road, a new republican movement was being formed behind them, to become the Provisional IRA, and the rest is history.
The soldiers were initially welcomed with tea and buns by Catholics along the Falls Road, who saw them as their protectors from the RUC and B Specials, many of whose members had been seen leading loyalist mobs to burn nationalist homes.
The honeymoon was short-lived, however, ending when nationalist Coates Street, behind Hastings Street RUC barracks, was burned out by loyalists, and the soldiers did nothing to prevent it.
Snatch squads sent in to make arrests during rioting on the Lower Falls were believed to be concentrating solely on nationalists and soldiers began using CS gas in republican Ballymurphy.
The "Falls Curfew," when five Catholics were killed, was the final straw.
Over the last 30 years, 508 soldiers have been killed, mainly by the IRA, and the British army has killed 309 people, by plastic bullet, by ambush, and in gun battles.
Some regiments are regarded as worse than others, chief among them being the hated Parachute Regiment, responsible for Bloody Sunday, and Scottish regiments, such as the Black Watch, many of whom were recruited from hard-line Protestant areas.
Hated as they often were, there was also residual sympathy for the young, working-class squaddies sent to Belfast from Britain. Many Belfast Catholic families have, or had, relatives in the British Army, and some girls married soldiers.
Trained to walk backward, they were often the butt of practical jokes. People would set their dogs on them, shout abuse and insults at them. In return, soldiers were not unknown to steal the morning bread and milk off doorsteps and windowsills.
When the August 1994 IRA cease-fire took effect, nationalists began shouting "goodbye" to patrolling soldiers. Artist Robert Ballagh created an icon with his "Slan Abhaile" painting showing a trooper heading off toward Larne and home.