Sunday Business Post


By Claire Treanor
30 May 2004

The spotlight may still be firmly focused on Britain's military presence in Iraq, but records revealed last week show that there are significantly more British troops serving in the North.The British government has deployed 8,500 troops in Iraq, compared to 13,500 in the North. This is a greater British military presence than in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Gibraltar, Kosovo and Iraq combined.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the continued presence of troops in the North is "necessary in returning normalisation to the province".

"The peace process is an evolving situation. Great strides have been made towards normalisation, but the terrorist threat still exists.

"Troop levels fluctuate according to threat levels," he said.

Demilitarisation has been a key Republican demand since the first IRA ceasefire a decade ago. In the initial implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, troop levels were dramatically reduced.

However, the degree of military presence in the North has remained static since January 2002, when army base closures brought the number of troops to its current level.

According to Sinn Fein, the figures indicate that the British government is still treating the North as a war zone. "The heavy troop presence in Northern Ireland is unacceptable and shows clearly that the mentality in Whitehall is that it is still very much at war here," said Davy Hyland of Sinn Fein.

The cost of keeping troops in the North for the 2002-2003 tax year was €586 million. The projected cost for the 2004- 2005 year is €500 million.

According to the Ministry of Defence, even when "normalisation" is achieved, "there will always be a British army garrison in Northern Ireland".

At the height of the Troubles, 72,000 British troops served in the North. The highest number of troops to have served in Iraq is 45,000.The British government has committed stg£3.8 billion to the occupation, but financial analysts warned that the cost was likely to escalate.

British defence secretary Geoff Hoon has admitted that it is costing Britain about stg£125 million a month to maintain troops in Iraq.

Independent forecasters say that, at that rate of spending, the stg£1.3 billion left from the amount set aside by the British treasury to fund military operations in Iraq will be spent by the end of this year.

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