| 3.9°C Belfast

Army presence to be scaled back in Northern Ireland

The military presence in Northern Ireland is being downgraded in the New Year, it was announced today.

The Army's General Officer Commanding is leaving and a Brigadier will be put in charge.

It will be the first time since the foundation of the State in 1921 that there has been no GOC, but the move is a clear reflection of the changed times in Northern Ireland.

Major General Chris Brown packs his bags on January 1 and heads off to Iraq to take up a new command in Baghdad.

"It is the end of an era, we have had a GOC in Northern Ireland since partition, but I am now superfluous and it is time to go," he said.

Since the Army's duties in Northern Ireland - Operation Banner - ended in 2007 it had always been envisaged the top job would be downgraded.

Where once there were up to 30,000 soldiers on duty, there is now a peacetime garrison of just under 5,000 scattered around bases across the province.

"We have gone through a transitional phase, but there was always going to come a point when we needed to recognise a two star general in command is no longer appropriate and in my judgment that is now," Gen Brown said.

He added: "When I came here I wanted to see how the PSNI had developed. There has been a huge increase in the competence of the PSNI to deal with the sort of problems we have to deal with. It is time to move forward with the police."

There was still a threat from dissident republicans, as regularly highlighted by Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, "but it doesn't require a two star GOC", he said.

The practical effect of his departure will be virtually nil, he insisted, just him and a couple of dozen staff leaving to take up new duties.

Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, Co Antrim will continue as Headquarters Northern Ireland.

Brigadier George Norton, who is taking command, has been in the province for the past 18 months working under Gen Brown, who said "he is Mr Continuity".

Northern Ireland was only doing what the rest of the UK has already done.

"Northern Ireland has been the anomaly over the last few years, Wales and Scotland no longer have a GOC," said Gen Brown.

Belfast Telegraph