August 16, 2005

Watchtower and gunmen shadow pretty N.Irish town

By Jodie Ginsberg

CROSSMAGLEN (Reuters) - With its hanging baskets full of
glossy pink flowers, squares of green lawn and old-fashioned
pubs, the center of Crossmaglen looks the picture of a
traditional British village.

But the outskirts of this Northern Irish border town tell a
different story.

An iron-clad fortress -- the local, army-protected police
base -- squats on the main road into Crossmaglen, bristling
with cameras and antennae. On the other side of town, wooden
boards painted with images of masked gunmen glare down from

A military helicopter clatters into the air, shattering the
silence of a sunny summer day.

This is the Irish nationalist heartland of south County
Armagh, an area of Northern Ireland dubbed "bandit country"
that borders the Irish Republic and where armed supporters of
the campaign for a united Ireland fought some of their fiercest
battles with British police and soldiers.

Between the start of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)
campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland in 1969 and
its ceasefire in 1997, around 60 police officers and more than
100 soldiers were killed in southern Armagh, many in

Snipers killed at least nine members of the British
security forces here in the 1990s and it was in this area that
the explosives for at least three major IRA bombs were

The police station -- protected by a regiment of the army
paratroopers in maroon berets who still patrol Crossmaglen's
streets -- was showered with IRA mortars and bullets.


Despite the ceasefire, Britain maintained its heavy
military presence in Northern Ireland. But two weeks ago,
following a formal end to the IRA's armed struggle, the British
military started dismantling watchtowers dotted along the Irish
border as a precursor to slashing its troop numbers by more
than half.

But locals expect change to be slowest in Crossmaglen,
where most houses fly the green, white and orange flag of
Ireland or the white and orange colors of Armagh.

"The army were out patrolling the streets yesterday and the
day before," said Lisa Ahern, a waitress at fast-food
restaurant Superbites in the village square. "Nothing has

She remembered a time when soldiers offered sweets to local
children, encouraging them over to their positions as
protection against snipers.

The snipers have gone, but deep-seated fear and mistrust of
the police and army remain.

"It would be generations before we could ever think there
would be trust of the police," said Colman Burns, a local
councilor for Sinn Fein, political ally of the IRA.

Burns recalled regularly being stopped and searched by
soldiers as a young man on his way to dances in the 1980s, when
violence was at its height.

But he was hopeful that once the visual proofs of conflict
-- like the green watchtowers that loom over Crossmaglen's
playing fields and pro-IRA signs nailed to telegraph polls --
are dismantled, the area can enjoy a new lease of life.

"When these things are removed, I can see tourism -- after
farming -- being a healthy second income," he told Reuters.

He envisages a time when tourists will come to fish in the
region's rivers and lakes, and when Armagh will be able to
market itself as a destination for cyclists, walkers and
riders, like neighboring County Monaghan in the Irish Republic.

Visitors interested in history would start to look beyond
"the troubles" and further back into the past by visiting the
nearby graveyard at Creggan where three 18th century Irish
Gaelic poets are buried.

"Things will change," Burns said.