THE last soldiers pulled out of south Armagh yesterday as the British army wound down its operation in the North.
Troops shut the gate at Bessbrook Mill after a 38-year province-wide deployment which cost 763 lives.
At the ceremony where the last 20 troops left this morning, General Officer Commanding Nick Parker said that dissidents no longer merited an army response. "If I look at the reality, they do not represent the sort of threat that the military infrastructure built up for Operation Banner should be used for," he said.
"So don't let's overplay the military role in removing the dissident threat; it is for other people to do that, not large numbers of troops in bases around the country."
Operation Banner, started in August 1969, was the name for the army's support of the police. Begun to protect Catholics in west Belfast, the force became a target for republicans and sustained a string of losses.
The closure of Bessbrook was "quite iconic", said Gen Parker. "It signifies a time when the army stops being part of the security forces and moves into being part of the community." About 5,000 troops will be maintained in the area in future, available for operations around the world. This compares to 27,000 at the height of the conflict in the 1970s.
Most of the Royal Irish Regiment, which undertook the bulk of the army's role in latter years, has been disbanded.
"The reason Bessbrook is significant is because it's the last big project in the normalisation plan," Gen. Parker said. "In two years since July 31, 2005, we have reduced from 44 to 10 bases. There's been an incredible amount of work."
A bomb disposal team will remain in the area but in the event of trouble, sparked by a marching season, for example, soldiers would be moved in from England, Scotland or Wales.
Britain's Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram told the House of Commons that closure of the last bases in Ballymena, Co Antrim, and Ballykelly, Co Derry, would be complete by next spring.
Sinn Fein MP for Newry and Armagh Conor Murphy welcomed the departure from Bessbrook.
The regional development minister in the new power-sharing Stormont government said: "This is obviously welcome news for the community of South Armagh, who have had to live under British military occupation for the past 30 years.
"Sinn Fein made the issue of demilitarising communities like South Armagh a central part of the political negotiations. We are happy we have now arrived at this point," Mr Murphy said.