Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment will be swapping the dust and danger of an Afghan war zone for the warm embrace of friends and family when they return to Northern Ireland today.
Around 100 troops from the 2nd Battalion of the regiment were due to arrive in Belfast this morning following a six month tour in the war torn country.
The soldiers are all members of the territorial arm of the regiment. Their tour of duty marks the first time that a formed unit of territorial soldiers has been deployed with its regular ‘parent’ battalion to an operational theatre.
As well as training and deploying on operations alongside the regular troops, the battalion’s main job was to help train and mentor the Afghan National Army.
Their duties also included maintaining security at their base at Camp Bastion in the notoriously trouble-hit Helmand province. A number were also deployed to forward bases in the front line at Sangin.
Following their departure from Afghanistan the troops spent a number of days ‘cooling off’ in Cyprus before making their way to Oxfordshire and onwards to Northern Ireland.
They will be transported this morning to six Territorial Army centres around the province, including Newtownabbey, where they will be met by their Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Cullen.
The troops will then be given a period of leave, but will reform for a number of engagements, including a presentation of operational medals from Lord Brookeborough at Hillsborough this weekend.
Royal Irish troops will be honoured at a number of ceremonies over the next month, including a parade in Ballymena on October 31 and the granting of the Freedom of Larne in early November.
The troops will join servicemen and women from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force for a parade through Belfast on November 2.
Around 40 soldiers from the Republic serving in the British Army are expected to take part in the parade.
The parade will be the first of its kind in Northern Ireland since World War II, when 14,000 men from the Republic were joining the ranks each year.
The soldiers will march through the city centre, before taking the salute from a senior military figure at Belfast City Hall.
The parade has attracted criticism from nationalists, and Sinn Fein called the event “an affront to nationalists and republicans the length and breadth of Ireland”.
But Westminster defence bosses hope the event will mark a turning point in relations between the British Army and Ireland.