In one Irish village, it's no cease-fire until guns of the British disappear

September 03, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Correspondent

CROSSMAGLEN, Northern Ireland -- The Irish Republican Army has called its cease-fire, but British soldiers here still patrol the village square named for a dead archbishop.

They wear combat gear, their faces are smeared with camouflage paint, their assault rifles are ready. They look boyish and embarrassed behind their greasepaint, crouched beside the candy store on a warm, bright, lazy afternoon. Great white clouds hang high in the sky like huge balloons over a holiday resort.

There's not much glory here for these abashed boys. You really )) don't join the army to play war games while teen-age girls walk their dogs, mothers push their babies in strollers and schoolboys make fun of you.

But this is South Armagh, "bandit country" to the British, an IRA stronghold. The letters IRA, in great green, white and orange capitals nailed to utility poles, greet travelers on each road leading into the village.

It's still British Northern Ireland, but the flag of the Republic flies over the Cardinal O'Fiach Square -- even over the public toilets, as a matter of fact.

"We would call that the Irish flag," says Paddy Short, a vigorous, ruddy-faced grandfather who runs a pub that's been in his family since 1885.

"We don't feel part of the South or part of the North," Mr. Short says. "We're just part of Ireland. We believe that Ireland consists of 32 counties."

He means Ireland includes the whole island: the 26 counties of the Republic, plus the six of Ulster that remained British after the 1921 partition. The border is just 5 or 6 miles south. The nearest big town is in the Republic.

The British barracks sprawl back from the edge of the square, maybe 30 yards from where the Irish flag flies, a massive and complex and ever-expanding steel, wire and concrete fortress.

A high watchtower, caged against mortar attack, broods over the village and the surrounding countryside. Aerials rise like minarets communicating with a far-off deity. A helicopter flaps overhead while the patrol moves through the village streets.

"Even today, British soldiers are running the streets with guns," Mr. Short says. "This is sad. Crossmaglen says: There's peace for you -- that's what they call peace."

Mr. Short is a brisk, talkative man who has emerged as a spokesman for his village. His people have been here just about forever, he says. He still lives on a farm that his family has owned since the 1600s.

"You'll see that everybody around here was born here and their ancestors were born here," he says.

Nobody around his tiny bar contradicts him as he talks about their town. They add their embellishments when he pauses to pull a pint of Guinness or Bass or Harp.

"The army will have to leave here before people accept that there is real peace," he says. "You don't have peace when people run around the town with guns, you know."

In the local office of the Sinn Fein, diagonally across the square from the British barracks, Patrick Brennan, a local leader, says he personally believes the Crossmaglen people welcome the cease-fire. Sinn Fein is the legal political wing of the IRA. They don't allow deviation from the official line. They don't have to worry about Mr. Brennan.

"In my opinion," he says, "nobody wants war except a warmonger, which is Britain."

Local people believe 500 or 600 British soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers are stationed at the Crossmaglen barracks. The army won't say. South Armagh has a reputation as route for gun-running from the Republic, but few weapons have ever been found here and no big caches.

Mr. Brennan, who is 30, has a sense of the escalation of confrontation. He can remember the fortress as just a big house with "a row of sandbags with a wee guard's hut and a wee soldier standing out front with a rifle.

"I remember them actually playing tennis there," he says.

Nobody sees the soldiers playing tennis anymore, and they don't ever come out into the town except on patrol.

The compound has often been mortared, once from a tractor-trailer parked in the square. Several helicopters have been hit. Nine soldiers and RUC policemen have been killed in the past couple of years by snipers using high-powered rifles.

"I can't say there's anybody really disapproves," Mr. Brennan says.

He thinks that over 25 years the British army and the RUC have lost 50 or 60 around Crossmaglen. The British army doesn't break down its statistics in that way.

Paddy Short says: "People should always remember, in Crossmaglen we had complete peace and contentment all our lives until the army moved here in 1970.

"We received them OK," he says. "We tolerated them. But then they decided they were getting tough. And they started blocking our paths, blowing up the roads toward the south. We had no IRA here at that time. None.

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