As bitter divisions within David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists over the disbandment threats were exposed, Northern Ireland Security Minister Jane Kennedy dismissed the claims.
“There is no decision to disband the Royal Irish Regiment for the foreseeable future. We will continue to need their services. They perform those services extraordinarily well. They are highly regarded for the work they do,” she said.
Ms Kennedy spoke out amid intense speculation that the Royal Irish’s three Home Battalions will be axed as part of the British government’s plans to slash troop numbers in Northern Ireland. An internal draft paper prepared by the General Officer Commanding in the North, Lieutenant General Philip Trousdell, said such a move was inevitable.
But British army chiefs have now pulled back by stressing that the 3,000 soldiers attached to the Home Service Battalions in Holywood, Co Down, Armagh City and Omagh, Co Tyrone would only go once all paramilitary threat has ended.
The troops under threat do not include the Royal Irish’s 1st Battalion, which fought in the Gulf War and was, until recently, under the command of Colonel Tim Collins, who is now the subject of two Ministry of Defence investigations.
Plans for a huge military scale-down were included in the British and Irish Government’s joint declaration, issued earlier this month, and which depends on the IRA declaring its war is over.
But outraged Ulster Unionists have called a special meeting of the party’s 860-strong ruling council to discuss how to save the Royal Irish.
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said delegates would be urged to reject the London and Dublin declaration.
But his party leader David Trimble has backed a rival plan to call an emergency meeting of the UUP’s 108-strong Executive next Friday.
He insisted Mr Donaldson’s tactics had only surfaced after this move was put in place.
“Several hours later I believe that Mr Donaldson gave a requisition to the party president,” Mr Trimble said.
“He may well have been away all day collecting signatures for that and he may not have been aware of the moves we have made.
“But since those moves came early yesterday his move is redundant and I would ask him therefore to withdraw the requisition. Come to the Executive meeting on Friday and we will sort the matter out.”