In The Observer, Henry McDonald interviews Lt Gen Nicholas Parker CBE, GOC (Northern Ireland) – the senior officer commanding the British army here – as Operation Banner comes to an end. There are several points made in the interview which no doubt others would want to pick out, but there are two that stand out to me. Firstly what he has to say about the future
All targets for demilitarising large swaths of Northern Ireland are likely to be met by 31 July. Eventually the troop numbers will fall to just under 5,000. Looking ahead, Parker envisages that the military presence will be comparable to troops stationed in Glasgow, Yorkshire or Cornwall. Asked what life soldiers in Northern Ireland would have in five years, he said: ‘I think they should be going into Tesco’s to get their shopping on the way home from their barracks in their uniform and nobody would bat an eyelid. ‘But the aim is to move from being part of the security forces in Northern Ireland to becoming another part of the Northern Ireland community.’ He adds that he foresees a day when the armed forces can open new recruitment centres across the north of Ireland, ‘in places like Bangor, Coleraine and Newry’.
The other point of interest is what he has to say about the threat from republican micro-organisations
‘Everybody knows that there is a dissident republican threat and that the chief constable leads on that. But my personal view is that I have watched with interest to see how they have absolutely no political support in the democratic process. I think they got under 1 per cent of the vote in the last elections.
‘If you are viewing a threat from a military perspective, it’s one that really would not cause you to lose much sleep, and I think that as a group they have been bypassed by the rest of the world. Whether they are persistent, whether they retain a capability to be taken seriously, is absolutely the chief constable’s call, and if he needed help we would provide that. But I think they are not a problem for the military,’ Parker says. ‘Anybody can take information off the internet that could produce things we should worry about. But everyone I talk to dismisses them as people who have lost the plot.’
The key line is, “But I think they are not a problem for the military”.