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Northern Ireland stands united despite killings

Even hard-liners appear to have lost their appetite for violence and retaliation after a decade of peace. The killers of two soldiers and a policeman are called 'traitors.'

March 12, 2009|Henry Chu

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — The extremists who tried to sabotage peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland by killing three British security personnel over the last week may have wound up strengthening it instead.

Residents and leaders of this tiny province, including thousands of Protestants and Roman Catholics who took to the streets Wednesday, have united in condemning the shootings, producing scenes that have left even jaded observers agog at how much has changed here since the end of the so-called Troubles a decade ago.

There was the sight of top government ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, two men who would once have spat at each other -- or worse -- across the sectarian divide, standing side by side demanding that the gunmen be brought to justice. McGuinness, who supported the killing of British soldiers during his time as an Irish Republican Army commander, then shocked everyone by denouncing the attackers as "traitors," an epithet fraught with historical meaning here.

Protestant hard-liners, who used to clamor for retaliation and aggressive government crackdowns, have appealed for restraint.

"Peace has to be worked at. It's always fragile," said Desmond Lowry, 49, a nurses union activist who joined protesters at the imposing Belfast City Hall. "What's happened is a solidarity I've never seen before, across all parties, saying we have to reject these actions."

Two British soldiers died Saturday in a hail of bullets outside an army barracks, and a veteran policeman was shot to death Monday while responding to a call for help in a strongly republican neighborhood. Republican splinter groups have claimed responsibility for the shootings, the first violent deaths of British security personnel in Northern Ireland since the so-called Good Friday peace accord in 1998.

The attacks have presented the power-sharing provincial government in Belfast, which resulted from the accord, with its most serious challenge so far. Concern over the potential fallout led Robinson and McGuinness, Northern Ireland's first minister and deputy first minister, respectively, to temporarily postpone their departure for an official visit to the U.S. and a meeting with President Obama.

Authorities have been on alert for any copycat attacks or reprisals by Protestant loyalist paramilitaries. But the outpouring of public solidarity has, to some degree, allayed fears of an immediate slide back into the chaos of the past, in which more than 3,500 people were killed.

Paul Dixon, an expert on Northern Ireland at Kingston University in London, praised political leaders for their response to the killings. "These attacks not only represent a setback, but they can represent an opportunity in further entrenching the peace process," he said.

Dixon cited as precedent a bombing by a republican dissident group in the town of Omagh in 1997, which killed 29 people but helped cement support for the peace process and paved the way for the Good Friday agreement.

Still, residents here acknowledge their fear that a few militants on either side could escalate the violence until it engulfs whole communities again. Most children still attend all-Catholic or all-Protestant schools, and the economic benefits of peace have been unevenly spread, sparking some disillusionment and resentment in deprived neighborhoods on both sides.

"The devil makes work for idle hands. That is a danger," said Billy McQuiston, 52, who spent a dozen years in prison as a loyalist paramilitary member. "But in honesty, I don't think there's anyone who has an appetite to go back to violence."

McQuiston lives along Belfast's Shankill Road, a Unionist stronghold where billboards still pay fierce homage to the British crown and signs honor Protestants killed during the 1970s.

But the relative peace of the last decade has delivered freedoms that many now cherish, and erstwhile hard-liners want their children to grow up without fear.

"Going to shops, you're not getting searched. There's no fear of car bombs or anything like that. To start to live with that again would be really drastic," said Anna Godfrey, 60, as she picked up groceries at a shop along Shankill.

Peace advocates took heart when Dawn Purvis, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has ties to Protestant hard-liners, rejected the idea of reprisals to the recent killings.

"I appeal to those who are thinking of retaliation in any form to listen to the united response of our community and politicians," Purvis said in a speech in Stormont, the power-sharing assembly. "Do not respond to those criminals, because that is what they are. Do not give them any credibility, and do not legitimize their actions."

In some ways, the killings of the two soldiers and the police officer were more a matter of when than if.

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