The detailed plan was negotiated in advance of the IRA statement drawing its campaign to a close, and intended to “front load” real change on the ground in its immediate aftermath.
Unionists are enraged by the plans, on which they were not consulted, particularly the fate of the 3,000-strong Royal Irish Regiment (RIR, formerly the Ulster Defense Regiment).
Although they plan a rearguard action to undermine the proposals, they are unlikely to succeed.
In a three phase program, the British government also intends to: Dismantle British Army watchtowers and bases in republican heartlands such as Divis Tower in Gerry Adams’s constituency of West Belfast as well as in Derry and South Armagh
Change the way the North is policed, with an end to British Army back-up for police operations, the “defortification” of 24 police stations and the extension of single beat officers and bicycle patrols.
Repeal anti-terrorist legislation, ending special powers and no-jury courts.
The radical moves, however, will depend on the security climate, with the IRA expected to honor its commitments.
The British Army chief in Northern Ireland, Sir Redmond Watt, confirmed on Monday that the RIR home service battalions would end their support role for the police on August 1, 2007.
The decision was welcomed by Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy, who earlier held talks with the Northern Secretary, Peter Hain, and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Sir Hugh Orde.
Murphy said his party had “consistently” called for demilitarization and such a strategy would inevitably lead to the end of the RIR because of its “sectarian composition and collusion with unionist paramilitaries.”
The SDLP Policing Board member, Alex Attwood, also welcomed the demilitarization plan, saying it had been held up for years by the failure of the IRA to end its campaign.
“All of this exposes ever more the weakness of Sinn Fein on policing”, he said. “They long ago ran out of excuses not to support the new policing arrangements. Their attitude is now clearly out of date.”
The Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Reg Empey, said the announcement should embarrass the DUP which had vowed to stop concessions to republicans. He said warring between the two unionist parties was allowing London and republicans to “get on with dismantling the defenses of our country.”
The announcement, said Empey, had come before any acts of completion by the IRA and was “in direct contradiction of the (British) government’s own promise on the matter. It is a deplorable decision”.
“To pretend that an enabling environment exists at the moment is not only premature but is reckless. Let us be clear. This is a political response to a vague IRA statement”, he said.
“Predictably the DUP hides its embarrassment by trying to blame the UUP. This is lies. For nearly two years the DUP has been the larger unionist party and promised if people voted for them concessions would stop.
“The last few months have shown this to be a false promise. Apparently Mr. Blair (the British prime minister) didn’t even inform the DUP about this decision. The government has decided to put loyal soldiers on the scrapheap”, said Empey.
Meanwhile, the DUP warned the British government it would pay a high price with party leader, Ian Paisley, accusing London of rushing key decisions. “The so-called normalization program”, he said, would have a “profound effect on the political process.”
“It is a surrender to the IRA. We are appalled at this dishonest and dangerous approach. This bilateral agreement between the (British) government and the IRA will have serious consequences.”
“The Secretary of State may believe that today’s statement will bring forward devolution but the reality is that it will delay its return. Of all the political parties, the DUP need devolution the least.
“While we have no control over many decisions, we do have a veto on the return of devolution. The government may wish to avoid dealing with us, but there are some things they cannot do without our support.
“We alone will dictate when we enter negotiations about devolution. We alone will dictate when, if ever, we enter discussions with Sinn Fein and we alone will dictate when, if ever, we enter an administration with Sinn Fein”, said Paisley.
“There is a price which we are not prepared to pay for the return of devolution”, said the DUP leader describing the plans as a “scandalous betrayal”.
Hugh Orde welcomed the demilitarization moves, saying the IRA’s words had been “clearer than anything we have seen from them previously”. But, he warned, “We are not alone in our view that the actions which follow that statement will be crucial.
“For some time now”, he said, “the police have been delivering a more normal style of service. We have made substantial changes to the way in which we police as well as the appearance of our police stations and vehicles.
“This has been driven forward by police at the front end who are keen to engage with the community in order to facilitate better delivery. Every community in Northern Ireland has a right to be policed.
“Nobody who espouses the values of justice, equality and human rights can continue to legitimately deny to their community the right to remedy wrongs done to them by seeking the protection of the police”, said Orde.
“We have a right to expect that Sinn F