• March 27, 2010

In the 1950s the French occupation forces in Indochina, restricted from many parts of the country by the strength of the guerrilla fighters who opposed them, resorted to securing strategic locations outside their safe areas by constructing fortified watchtowers.

It seems incredible that thirty years later in Western Europe the same philosophy would be applied as a so-called democracy made war on people it described as its own citizens.

At the height of the War in Ireland (for that is what it was and to a certain extent still is) the British Army dotted the landscape across the six counties of north-eastern Ireland with watchtowers. They invariably were sited in those areas where there were concentrations of their most troublesome citizens.

They differed in sophistication, some providing simply a secure lookout, others fortified bases in their own right. The bases were self contained with landing strips to enter and access in country areas which were denied by the activities of an increasingly more sophisticated guerrilla Army that used the culvert bomb (the forerunner of today’s Afghan roadside bomb) and the sniper to deadly effect.

In some areas the fortifications were interlinked by line of site like the almost `Maginot line’ which stretched along the Armagh, Tyrone and Fermanagh border areas.

Slowly almost grudgingly as the `peace process’ unfolded the British started to dismantle these bases and these `blots on the landscape’ were removed.

This week a milestone of sorts was reached when demolition of the final watchtower commenced.

It was a curious finale as the base tucked away in the hills above the Shankill Road in West Belfast had almost been forgotten. Ballygomartin tower at the top of the Glencairn road in Belfast provided an expansive view across Belfast as a whole but was particularly useful for British Army surveillance of the west Belfast area.

Ostensibly manned by UDR soldiers until their disgraced disbandment it was in fact something of a mystery with the clandestine comings and goings leading to its local nickname of `Area 51′.

The British Army will probably never admit to the true extent of its operations and even with its closure the subterfuge continued. MOD sources claimed it was vacated in the 1970s. However an enterprising local journalist established that this was disingenuous by finding a visitors book discarded in the rubble of its demolition with an entry for 1994.

The physical scars on the landscape left by these monuments to a failed policy will soon fade. Other legacies may be longer lasting. Environmental pollution around the sites is supposed to be rectified by the MOD but they have shown a marked reluctance in the past to publicise details of these works. We also will probably never know the true cost in health terms of the use of microwave radars and surveillance equipment used from these locations, again the MOD have been reluctant to cooperate to allay health fears amongst those populations that had these unwelcome neighbours.

Physically `Area 51′ and all the other infrastructures of tyranny which dotted the Irish landscape are gone but its legacy may be more long-lasting than first thought.

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