BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The British army marked a milestone of peacemaking Tuesday as it formally ended its 38-year mission to bolster security in Northern Ireland.
The military's longest-running operation officially was ending at midnight. But the symbolic moment came months after the reality — no British troops have been on patrol on Belfast streets for two years.
As of Wednesday, all 5,000 soldiers remaining in this long-disputed corner of the United Kingdom will be committed to training for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere overseas.
Analysts and ex-soldiers are debating whether British security forces defeated the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which waged a 1970-1997 campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force. But all sides agree the IRA's 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm has permitted British soldiers to beat their own retreat.
"We don't need them any more," said Chief Constable Hugh Orde, commander of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which increasingly can operate in most of the IRA's Roman Catholic power bases. For decades, police patrols in these areas required backup from troops.
The central goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 — a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party — was revived in May and has been operating harmoniously.
The other key goal, forging a police force supported on both sides of the community, is more than midway through a 10-year reform program. Catholic numbers in police ranks have more than doubled to 21 percent, and Britain hopes to transfer control of Northern Ireland security to local hands next year.
Two dissident IRA groups continue to plot attacks. But Orde and Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, who commands the new "peacetime" army garrison, say the dissidents will be defeated by gathering intelligence, not by deploying troops.
"There are still places where, sadly, a very small number of people are determined to wreck all that has been achieved," Orde said. "We have to be very mindful of that threat, but we can cope with that."
The British army once had 106 bases and 27,000 troops in Northern Ireland, and had 44 bases here only two years ago. It now has fewer than 20 bases and expects to have just 10 by April.
"The change in the political and security reality of Northern Ireland since ... 2005 has been even more dramatic than we could have hoped," said Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern.
The official end of Operation Banner — the codename used for the deployment of troops as peacekeepers 38 years ago — has triggered introspection throughout Britain and Ireland, where tens of thousands bear physical and psychological scars from a conflict that left 3,700 dead. Among those were 763 soldiers and 309 people killed by soldiers, chiefly Catholic civilians and IRA members.
Britain deployed troops in August 1969 to end Protestant mob attacks on Catholic homes in west Belfast and street battles between Catholic civilians and Protestant police in Londonderry, the second-largest city. Most soldiers, welcomed by the Catholic minority, expected to stay for only weeks.
Instead, Britain permitted Northern Ireland's Protestant government of the day to wield control over how British forces were used. A newly formed Provisional IRA began launching attacks against police and, eventually, the army, killing its first soldier in 1971. Protestant leaders used the army to impose internment without trial almost exclusively against IRA suspects.
In 1972, the army committed its deadliest act, the Bloody Sunday massacre in which 13 unarmed Catholic demonstrators were shot to death in Londonderry. That year proved the deadliest for both the army and Northern Ireland as a whole: 470 slain, including 102 soldiers.
Sinn Fein justice spokesman Gerry Kelly, who led the IRA's first car bomb attacks on London in 1973, accused Britain of repeatedly spurning offers to negotiate.
"It could have come to a conclusion much sooner ... but the British political establishment kept pushing for a military victory that the British army itself knew was impossible to achieve," he said.
Protestant leaders said the problem was prolonged by local hatreds, and the army's presence prevented a collapse into civil war.
"The reason the army came into Northern Ireland in the first place was because we couldn't find a way to live together, so let's not blame the army for what happened," said Protestant lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson. "We shouldn't forget their sacrifices. There were families who sent their boys over here to hold the line — and they came back in a wooden box."
Retired Col. Mike Dewar, a security analyst who served several tours in Northern Ireland, called the death toll in the early 1970s "horrific — a much higher casualty rate than what we have suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan."
Intelligence agents eventually built a detailed picture of the IRA, and undercover army squads wiped out several IRA units in ambushes in the 1980s and early 1990s — a brutal strategy that Dewar credits with spurring the IRA's cease-fire.
"The IRA were clearly infiltrated. The pressure became unbearable for the IRA," Dewar said.
But a former soldier, John Moore, who was paralyzed from the waist down by an IRA bomb in 1981, said he felt no sense of triumph, only relief.
"There were no victories. Surely no one in their right mind wants to go back to those dark days," said Moore, who served in the Royal Green Jackets Regiment. "All it brought was pain, death and destruction."