Northern Ireland refuses to cede peace

Antrim, UK - Workers in Belfast, Derry, and Newry gathered in silent vigils Wednesday to protest three recent killings that broke 11 years of calm – and to underscore, through dignified protest, how unwilling they are to surrender a hard-earned peace.

Two unarmed British soldiers and a police constable were murdered by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process in separate attacks in Antrim and Craigavon.

Although there are fears that the attacks could reopen sectarian wounds and destabilize the peace process, Northern Irish society has been united in condemning the violence.

"The horror and shock shown by the people of Northern Ireland in response to the repugnant murders ... must be expressed publicly," says Peter Bunting, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which organized the vigil. "Those who long for a society at peace with itself and with others can express their solidarity with that most dignified form of protest: a wall of human silence."

The Real IRA and Continuity IRA, dissident paramilitary groups, have claimed responsibility for the attacks.

After leading the uprising during the Troubles, the IRA signed a peace accord in 1998 and has since pursued its goals through politics. On Tuesday, Martin McGuinness, a leader of the group's political wing, Sinn Féin, called the perpetrators "traitors to the island of Ireland."

Antrim Town, the scene of Saturday's attack on soldiers receiving a pizza delivery outside Massereene Barracks, is a quiet community of 20,000 on the shores of Lough Neagh. It bears few physical scars from the Troubles and was an unlikely place for dissidents to strike. The soldiers killed were about to deploy to Afghanistan.

"This area has always been quiet and politically middle-of-the-road," says Thomas Burns, a local representative from the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). "Although the security forces had predicted an attack from dissident republicans, nobody would have expected it to happen in somewhere like Antrim."

Three days after the attack, a steady stream of people continues to leave flowers at the scene of the shooting. Among the visitors are local florists delivering orders from other parts of Northern Ireland and England.

"To think these young soldiers were about to go to Afghanistan, but they ended up being shot dead here in Antrim Town," one woman said as she laid flowers.

Political and social leaders from Ireland and Britain have been united in condemning the killings. At his weekly public audience on Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI added his condemnation. There are fears of reprisals from loyalist paramilitaries, but in Antrim Town, people recognize that a peaceful response is needed at this time.

"These gunmen can't destroy the peace process," says Aidan Gillespie, walking with his daughter on the grounds of Antrim Castle, adjacent to the Massereene Barracks. "It's only society that can destroy it, by how we react. If we stick together against these murderers, then they will never win."

The reaction in Antrim was swift and unambiguous. The morning after the attack, hundreds of worshipers from the local Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, and Methodist churches congregated for prayer at the police cordon where the shooting took place.

"People had three reactions," says the Rev. Tony Devlin, of St. Comgall's Catholic Church, which is just yards from the barracks. "First of all, they were upset by the death and injury to the soldiers and civilians. Secondly, it made raw again some of the evil events of the past, and, thirdly, they were upset that it happened in our town."

His parishioners were determined to show their outrage, but they wanted to offer it collectively with neighbors from other churches, he says.

"In the past, if something like this happened people would withdraw into their own community," he says. "This time everyone is united because it was an attack on everybody, on the peace we all own."

Two soldiers and two civilians delivering the pizza were also injured in the attack, including a Polish national – one of many drawn to Northern Ireland's post-conflict economic boom.

"Polish workers would have known about the past troubles in Northern Ireland, but now that there is peace why not come here?" says Maciej Bator, director of the Polish Association of Northern Ireland. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, the Polish community has grown from 50 to nearly 30,000 people.

"We have always felt secure here, so these attacks are a completely new experience for us," he says, adding that the family of the Polish victim is receiving invaluable support from the local community.

There is also a generation of native Northern Irish who have no memory of sectarian killings. Anthony Watson, the other pizza deliverer injured in the attack, was just 19 years old.

"He is too young to remember when security was tight around British Army bases," says Mr. Burns. "For him, soldiers ordering pizzas on a Saturday night was a normal event."

But even those who had experienced the Troubles were surprised by the attack. "Some people who heard the gunshots on Saturday night thought that they were fireworks," says Father Devlin. "When I was growing up if you heard gunshots, you knew that they was gunshots."