[Sinn Fein]

6th July 2003

Sinn Fein Organise Demilitarisation Conference in South Armagh

Members of Ógra Shinn Fein from throughout the north gathered in south Armagh to camp out on Slieve Gullion mountain to monitor the level of British army activity in the area. On Sunday two members of Ógra Shinn Fein - Barry McNally from Carrickmore and Barry McColgan from Omagh - attended a Sinn Fein conference held in Slieve Gullion Courtyard to report back with the results of their survey.

Several speakers addressed the Sinn Fein conference on DeMilitarisation in Slieve Gullion Courtyard, south Armagh on Sunday 6th July. The conference opened with Catriona Ruane giving an overview on organising campaigns in general. She was followed by Declan Fearon, South Armagh Farmers and Residents Group who told delegates of their experience to date in their campaign to have the British army presence removed from south Armagh. The two members of Ógra Shinn Fein then gave details of their survey to the conference.

In a joint statement they said;

``Members of Ógra Shinn Fein have just completed a weekend camped out on Slieve Gullion mountain to monitor the level of British army activity in this area. During the weekend - from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon - we have recorded 122 incidents of helicopter flights. These included landing at spy-posts and barracks and at times they would hover overhead for nearly 1 hour or drop off troops in the surrounding fields.

``The level of helicopter activity during this weekend is unacceptable. On average this would amount to nearly 500 flights a week in this part of south Armagh alone. Five years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement we still see the British government publicly stating that they are committed to a policy of demilitarisation but having spent the weekend in south Armagh we no longer believe this and neither, we believe, do the people living in this area.

``The message we bring to this conference today is that we will not allow the issue of demilitarisation to fade away. The British have made a commitment and must now fulfil that promise. Demilitarisation is an important issue to the youth of Ireland and to our future in this country.

``Go Raibh Míle Maith Agaibh Go Léir.''

Summing up at the end of the conference the Cavan & Monaghan Sinn Fein TD, Caoimhín Ó'Caoláin said;

``The British spy-posts are as much an issue for people living south of the border as they are for those in the six counties. From their vantage points these spy-posts operate their sophisticated surveillance equipment into Counties Louth, Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal.

``Of course Demilitarisation is not just about spy-posts. The bottom line for us as Irish Republicans is the complete removal of British military equipment and personnel. Any progress made to date has not been through a willingness on behalf of the British government to do so. Rather it has been brought about by the relentless campaigning of beleaguered Nationalist communities throughout the North.

``It is obvious these bases in the north are used as a tactical and training area for the British military services. These installations remain because the securocrats within the British establishment still wield major influence and it appears Tony Blair is not prepared to confront them or is incapable of challenging their authority.

``Five years ago the British government committed themselves to a policy of DeMilitarisation in the Good Friday Agreement. This policy was reinforced in the recent publication of the Joint Declaration and some spy-posts have been removed. Sinn Fein has raised this issue in the Dáil on many occasions but for the most part we feel that An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and other parties in the south have merely given lip service to this problem.

``The full implementation of a programme of Demilitarisation requires that all political parties will lobby for this to happen. Experience has taught us that we cannot depend or rely on good faith from the British government.''

Following the conference Newry/Armagh Sinn Fein Spokesperson, Conor Murphy said;

``We have organised this conference today to highlight the need to demilitarise south Armagh and other areas throughout the six counties in as short a time frame as possible. Since the Good Friday Agreement the British government has failed utterly to fulfil it's promise of a fixed time scale to demilitarise the six counties. Many areas, predominately along the border counties, are still heavily fortified by British military garrisons and south Armagh remains the most heavily militarised area in Western Europe. This is an indictment of the British government's failed policy and proof that they have procrastinated at every opportunity available to them to remove their troops from the north of Ireland.

``Demilitarisation does not just involve the removal of spy-posts. In essence it means the complete removal of British military personnel. Residents living in the vicinity of the joint British army/Police barracks in Crossmaglen have been forced to live with constant helicopter activity day and night. Just last week we had complaints about unusual numbers of helicopters landing in fields outside Lismore Park, Crossmaglen during the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings.

``The statistics of British military occupation of this area appear dull and characterless. Up until recently there were 5 Major military bases, 14 hilltop forts. 31 spyposts, a fluctuating presence of almost 3,000 British army and PSNI personnel - at most times 1 for every 8 citizens in this area. All this backed up by constant helicopter activity night and day and hundreds of infra-red surveillance cameras and listening devices scattered throughout the area.

``However, bland statistics do not convey the reality of the British military presence here in south Armagh. There are hundreds of helicopter flights in this area every week. These result in cattle stampeding through fields. Animals are killed or injured and damage caused to fencing. Farmers throughout this island have enough to contend with, attempting to earn a living in an industry and way of life which is under threat. They do not need this added burden of un-necessary military occupation of their land and property.

``The British government have promised a rolling programme of demilitarisation in this area. At present they are engaged in removing the watch towers from Newtowncloughogue and Tievecrum. We are told this work has been completed. However security surveillance cameras remain on the roadsides at these spy-posts. This form of unmanned remote spy-posts is not acceptable in this area. We are demanding that the British military presence - inclusive of checkpoints, spyposts and personnel be removed completely.

``While we acknowledge that some bases have been removed from south Armagh we would urge that this drip-feed approach be abandoned and that an acceptable scheduled time-frame for complete demilitarisation become unstoppable and implemented at once. Only then might we convince people that demilitarisation is really going to happen.

``People living in South Armagh are angry and believe their community has been deliberately excluded from any benefit derived from the Good Friday Agreement. Despite this daily harassment they continue to give support to the on-going Peace Process.

``Clearly the British government cannot be trusted to implement their promises of demilitarisation and the primary aim of this conference today is to ensure that we highlight this situation on every occasion and keep it at the top of any future negotiations.''

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