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Old tensions revive in N. Ireland

A brutal killing blamed on the IRA is a reminder of the British province's legacy of paramilitary violence.

December 12, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

CULLYHANNA, NORTHERN IRELAND — The boys of South Armagh -- real men, "hard men," they call them -- never were ones to bow to anybody.

The British army for 30 years was mostly unable to drive in and out of its command here in the rolling green heartland of the Irish Republican Army. Roadside bombs and IRA snipers forced the soldiers into helicopters. And when they pulled out for the last time in August, they got a proper send-off. "The fools realize they will never break the spirit of republicanism," said a sign wielded by the crowd assembled to say a resentful goodbye.

Now, this militant rural county on the dividing line between Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland is officially at peace. The IRA handed in its weapons, and the leaders of a new joint government between pro-British unionists and the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, met with President Bush at the White House for the first time Friday in an effort to attract new investment into a newly peaceful Northern Ireland.

Maybe nobody told the South Armagh boys the war was over. The killing in October of Paul Quinn, a 21-year-old truck driver who grew up in this sleepy emerald village -- a slaying so brutal that lots of people start crying just describing what happened -- has rocked the new power-sharing government in Belfast and offered a stark reminder, if any were needed, that Northern Ireland's legacy of paramilitary violence remains alive and well in these long-turbulent borderlands.

Sinn Fein leaders have attributed Quinn's slaying to the shady workings of criminal gangs that still hold sway in this region long known as "bandit country." But Quinn's family and friends say he was beaten to death by men with links to the IRA, raising incendiary questions about the once-militant organization's ability to control its rank and file as it disarms and joins the new government.

The fact that anyone was willing to call in the police and publicly point the finger at the IRA at all signals a remarkable transformation in a region that for decades has regarded the group as a national army, its gunmen as heroes and the police as dangerous British stooges.

Hundreds of residents have turned out at meetings over the last few weeks, demanding that the Sinn Fein leadership ferret out those they say are responsible for the crime.

"IRA are murderin scum" were the words painted, incredibly, on a wall in the center of town after Quinn's funeral, attended by hundreds.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has deplored the killing, insisted that no republicans were involved and urged full cooperation with the police, a course that has mollified unionist leaders in the power-sharing government and averted a collapse of the peace.

But many in the party's stronghold here are demanding that the leadership go further and rein in the lawlessness and violence that are a legacy of its "freedom fighters" and the younger generation growing up in their wake.

Sinn Fein leaders suggest it's more likely Quinn ran afoul of diesel fuel smugglers than the IRA, because he often drove trucks that may have carried illegal fuel. "There is no republican involvement whatsoever in this man's murder, and all of us should be careful that we don't end up playing politics with what is a dreadful, criminal action," Adams said not long after Quinn's death.

But the young man's family has rejected that theory. "The boy didn't have tuppence to put together," said his father, Stephen Quinn. He believes his son was punished on the orders of local IRA commanders for getting into fights with the sons of at least two powerful IRA members -- and threatening a system of paramilitary law and order that for years most people in South Armagh preferred to the police.

Now, though, the Police Service of Northern Ireland patrols the streets of South Armagh, albeit in heavily armored vehicles.

"They were losing control. It used to be if somebody from the IRA said something up there, that was it, it was done. They were losing that grip, and they had to get that grip back, and the only way to get that grip back was to make an example out of Paul Quinn," said William Frazer, who has long been an advocate for Protestant victims of IRA violence in South Armagh.

"It backfired, though, because a lot of people were disgusted with the severity of the beating," he said. "If they'd have shot him, they probably would have gotten away with it. It was the fact they gave this boy who was an up-and-coming republican such a bad death."

Quinn was a lively and good-natured young man who wasn't averse to raising a little hell and letting fly with his fists if someone threatened him or his family.

After his violent altercations over the last few months, Quinn had received two warnings to leave the area.

He ignored them at first. Then, beginning to get worried, he moved back in with his parents in Cullyhanna.

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