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Armed Forces: Operation Banner

Volume 694: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Bob Ainsworth) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement:

On 31 July, Operation Banner will come to an end; the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy having delivered continuous support to the police and civil authorities in Northern Ireland for 38 years. It will have been the longest continuous deployment of UK Armed Forces in their history.

As we move into a new era with fewer than 5,000 troops resident in Northern Ireland, trained and available for deployment worldwide, the military will retain some limited but specific responsibilities with the capability to deploy in situations of extreme public disorder in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland under a new operation to be known as Operation Helvetic. The troops deployed in such circumstances would come from wherever they are available at the time. In addition, provision of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) will continue.

Across the UK the Armed Forces can provide support to the civil authorities during emergencies under normal military aid to civil authorities tasking arrangements. Where there is an imminent threat to life, such as a major accident or natural disaster, the authorities can call upon local military commanders for support. After 1 August the vast majority of military support in Northern Ireland will be broadly comparable to the assistance that is currently provided in Great Britain, tailored for the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. Additionally, while the Armed Forces are not responsible for maintaining national security in the UK, that does not mean that they would not and could not provide specific support in this area to a civil authority when requested to do so. Again, the approach in Northern Ireland will be brought more closely into line with that on the mainland.

As indicated in the Good Friday agreement, military helicopters will continue to be based in Northern Ireland, but with a worldwide deployable role. As a consequence, essential flying training will continue in order to maintain the skills of the aircrew and, with Northern Ireland designated as Low Flying Area 19, the training emphasis will be similar to other areas within the UK. Helicopters will also continue to be used in Northern Ireland in support of the civil authorities. It is important to note that the civil authorities in Northern Ireland do not have access to large numbers of civilian helicopters and we will continue to provide support to them.

1 August marks the beginning of a new era for the UK Armed Forces in Northern Ireland when, as with other parts of the country, the military will become very much part of the community. The impact of the commitment since 1969 has been considerable on both the military themselves and the MoD civilians supporting them. They and the community at large have suffered both death and injury. We should take this opportunity to remember the commitment, bravery and sacrifice of all those who have served over so many years in helping to deliver the current, more settled and more optimistic circumstances. Our recognition will culminate in a commemorative service to be held in the spring of 2008 as announced by my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence in his Statement of 9 May 2007 (Official Report, Commons, col. 11 WS).