Attacks raise concerns in Northern Ireland

Lurgan, UK - Bursts of laughter. Young men playing ping pong. Battles of the bands.

In a Northern Ireland determined to put conflict behind it, the Links teen center bridges the divide between Catholic and Protestant teens in this struggling town, giving them something to do, an alternative to streets that offer a toxic mix of drugs and violence. It's working, but like the peace process itself, it is under strain amid looming budget cuts.

"We're just keeping our heads above water," said Martin Larkham, 52, a youth work manager. "Everybody is."

Tough times are hitting promising initiatives like Links - and causing unease about the very fate of Northern Ireland's peace deal. As the troubled territory slogs through the worst economic downturn in decades, dissident Irish nationalist militias are getting increasingly restless - carrying out a string of violent acts including a recent bombing that injured three children.

Deep-rooted poverty and continued religious segregation of Irish nationalists and British loyalists are combining with steep budget cuts in London that lead many to fear that the hard work building bridges between Catholics and Protestants could suffer. Though their numbers are small, the ability of the dissidents to cause problems has been improving.

"(The dissidents) have gotten better," said Queen's University political science professor Paul Bew of those launching attacks. "There could be bad events just around the corner."

Protestants and Catholics agreed to a power sharing government a dozen years ago, when the major Catholic and Protestant parties forged an unlikely coalition to end violence that claimed 3,600 lives over three decades.

But those opposed to the deal have increased operations since 2007. In March 2009, Irish Republican Army dissidents shot to death two off-duty British soldiers collecting pizzas and a policeman sitting in his car.

Poverty, unemployment and continued religious segregation are fueling a recruiting drive by groups clinging to the dream of getting the British out of Northern Ireland. The dissidents are recruiting, openly it is said, among poor youths who feel the Irish Republican Army sold out for a chance in power.

Even as the violence has increased, the financial support for the peace accord is being threatened by Britain's economic squeeze. Funding from the British government has already been cut by some 393 million pounds ($606 million) for this financial year and Northern Ireland must find additional savings of 128 million pounds ($197 million).

Though authorities are reticent to discuss the threat of increased attacks, funds earmarked to fight al-Qaida terror plots are being diverted to operations meant to quash attacks by dissidents.

During the summer, always a time of unease because marches by Protestant societies celebrating old battles stir up sectarian passions, tensions grew in places like Lurgan, located in an area once known as the "Murder Triangle" because of the violence that marked the region.

The town southwest of Belfast -built largely on linen making - boasts a broad main street, crossed by lanes dotted with old workers' houses and cottages. One of them, Castle Lane, is the dividing line: Roman Catholics to one side, Protestants to the other.

Community workers intentionally placed a youth center right on the line, a spot acceptable to both camps. Featuring a computer room with glistening white Apple desktops and a common room with ping pong and pool tables, the center offers an oasis from the drugs, alcohol and boredom that lure young people into trouble. Though Links has not been warned of any specific funding cuts, the workers worry that looming pressure on the local government, the community and individual donors will ultimately hurt their ability to provide services to the community's young people.

Rioting broke out in one of Lurgan's Roman Catholic public housing developments last month, with young men hurling Molotov cocktails. Youths threw Molotov cocktails at a passenger train, but it failed to catch fire. Earlier this month, two 12-year-olds and 2-year-old were hit by flying debris in a bomb apparently timed to go off as emergency crews responded to an earlier alarm.

Lurgan's youth - many of whom were raised on tales of bravado during the Troubles - are ripe pickings for recruiters promising excitement and a larger cause. In a town that offers little more than convenience stores and shops catering to older people, teens say there little of interest to them.

"There's nothing to do," sighs 16-year-old Danielle Fox, who dreams of studying drama. Without the center to channel her abundant energy, Fox says she might "be rioting" herself.

The unemployment rate among young people between the ages of 18 and 24 is nearly 16 percent in Northern Ireland. Students seeking places in higher education and training will find fewer places amid shrinking budgets. Those seeking jobs face competition from older and more qualified workers.

What concerns observers the most about the attacks is the timing: Northern Ireland's manufacturing base has shrunk, its prospects for growth dampened. Many of those out of work have given up hope. Nearly half of the unemployed - 43 percent - have been unemployed for more than a year. At a time when an influx of cash could defuse sectarian overtures, there's no money to be had.

People can't hide their worry. One rainy day this week, Jennifer Maye, 43, who works in customer service, paused in front of a fruit market in the Catholic side of town to express the fears of many - that more violence could be at hand. But she and many others insist that the troublemakers are few.

"I think the majority of people don't want to go back to that," Maye said. "We thought those days were gone."

The dissidents have rarely been successful in killing their targets or causing widespread destruction with car bombs. But their attacks have been gaining in number and complexity, suggesting the bomb operations are gaining in sophistication. Semtex, most likely from a store garnered by the IRA decades ago, was apparently used in a recent attack.

Sinn Fein, the Catholic-backed party that supported the IRA's unsuccessful bid to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, says it's been trying to talk with dissident groups, but has been spurned.

Dissidents say there is no compromise.

"It's inevitable," said Richard Walsh, 28, a hard-liner who once spoke for an IRA splinter group. "It will continue to happen until the British leave."

But experts like Bew are convinced that voters have persuaded politicians to support the peace process. He believes the accord, and the government, is stable for now.

Teenagers and counselors at the Links youth center also can't imagine going back to the way things were before, and they've tried to etch their dream in a mural on the wall of the front hallway.

It shows the Protestant side of Lurgan, and the Catholic side. In between, they've plotted out a sunburst, and pasted their pictures in its glow.