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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troops Lower Guard in Calm Belfast

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- British army troops in Northern Ireland swapped battle helmets for soft regimental hats Monday in response to an easing of security since the Irish Republican Army declared a cease-fire July 20.


A spokesman for the 17,000 British troops in the province said the step was taken "in the light of the current assessment of the threat to the security forces following the declaration of the IRA cease-fire."


It was the latest sign of an easing of the tension which has held the province in its grip during 28 years of war by IRA guerrillas against British rule.


Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said in weekend remarks that the first two weeks of the IRA cease-fire were the most incident-free for years, despite three murders, one of which police suspect was sectarian.


Similar so-called confidence-building measures were taken after the IRA called its first cease-fire in August 1994 but were scrapped when the guerrillas reverted to violence with bomb attacks on the British mainland in February 1996.


But since July 20 there have been no IRA bombs or attacks on British troops or the 12,000-strong Royal Ulster Constabulary, or RUC, police they were sent to protect more than two decades ago.


Members of the Royal Highland Fusiliers wore their traditional "Tam O'Shanter" soft hats of khaki with a white plume when they went on patrol with police in the Roman Catholic, Irish nationalist stronghold of West Belfast Monday.


The RUC has already shed customary flak jackets and automatic weapons for routine patrols, although both are in evidence for set-piece confrontations such as last weekend's marches by pro-British Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists.


Thousands of heavily-armed police deployed in Belfast and Londonderry at the weekend behind armor-plated jeeps to keep a lid on tension and police said that apart from minor incidents, the events passed off peacefully.


Loyalists clashed briefly with Catholics in Londonderry when 12,000 Protestant Apprentice Boy marchers paraded through Northern Ireland's second city.


The violence and a hoax bomb alert on a bridge over which the parade passed overshadowed what police said was a largely peaceful march by a key Protestant, pro-British organization through a Catholic, Irish nationalist stronghold.


Breakaway loyalist and republican groups remain active though, and security forces have not dropped their guard against any attempts to wreck multi-party Northern Ireland peace talks which start Sept. 15.


A 16-year-old Catholic boy was beaten to death and dumped in a field last month in what police fear may have been a sectarian attack. Several people have been charged.