DUBLIN — Those of us who lived through the Northern Ireland troubles thought the days were gone when we would wake up to hear on the morning radio bulletin that another British soldier had been killed. It hadn’t happened for 12 years.
So the news that two soldiers had been shot dead at the Massereene military base in County Antrim on Saturday night came as a shocking reminder that the peace process, in which the British, Irish and U.S. governments have invested so much in time and money, is still a work in progress.
It was notable that the soldiers were killed at one of the few army bases in Northern Ireland.
The assassins had to go there to find them, as British Army patrols, once so ubiquitous on the streets, largely have withdrawn to barracks.
In fact, security had become so relaxed at the Massereene barracks that soldiers there often were seen strolling in plain clothes in the park beside nearby Antrim Lough, distinguished only by their English accents and regulation haircuts.
This morning, just hours after the shooting, I happened to be at a literary conference in Ennis, County Clare, sharing a platform with the President of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, and others to debate the nature of political writing.
Adams, who is largely credited with persuading the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) to end its campaign of violence and decommission its weapons, was utterly despondent on hearing of the soldiers’ deaths, widely blamed on a dissident faction of the IRA.
“Those responsible have no support, no strategy to achieve a united Ireland,” he complained. “Their intention is to bring British soldiers back onto the streets. They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict.”
Asked about his own record — he used to support attacks on the British Army — Adams replied that the peace process that he sponsored had led to two major accords, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the 2006 St. Andrews Agreements, which had resulted in the sharing of power in Northern Ireland and the creation of all-Ireland institutions.
The shooting is without doubt the biggest crisis in the peace process since the power-sharing government, currently headed by Peter Robinson of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, was established in May 2008.
The two leaders have delayed a planned visit to the White House next week during which they were to meet President Barack Obama as part of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
While the power-sharing deal is not in immediate danger, fear has returned to Northern Ireland — fear of going back to a cycle of killings and fear of a heavy-handed military response.
Northern Ireland’s top policeman, Sir Hugh Orde, disclosed just two days ago that he had requested undercover soldiers to conduct surveillance of suspected militants because the threat level had risen from substantial to severe. Sunday he promised that troops would not be deployed on the streets, but he is now under pressure to step up visible security.
No one knows the numerical strength of Republican splinter groups — estimates range from a few dozen to a couple of hundred — but the nature of the attack indicates that the terrorists possess and know how to use high-powered weaponry.
They ambushed the soldiers as they accepted a pizza delivery at the camp entrance, firing automatic weapons from a van and then, according to witnesses, shooting the soldiers again after they fell to the ground before driving off. Two other soldiers and the two pizza delivery men, one a Polish national, were injured.
The dead soldiers were in desert fatigues; the pizza was to be their last meal before they left for combat duty in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
The splinter groups have been trying to inflict casualties on the security forces for a year. They wounded five officers in separate attacks and came close to placing a large bomb at an army camp at Ballykinlar, County Down.
But it was widely assumed that they had been successfully infiltrated and that they did not have enough ‘safe houses’ to carry out major operations.
Everyone with a stake in the peace process has condemned the murders. The British and Irish prime ministers, Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen, pledged that the killings would not disrupt the power-sharing arrangement.
McGuinness, who himself once organized IRA attacks on British soldiers in Derry, declared bluntly, “That war is over,” and he disputed the right of any former IRA members to carry out such operations.
Robinson described the murders as a “futile act” by those who commanded no public support and had no prospect of success, and he called on loyalist paramilitary groups not to seek revenge but to leave the matter entirely to the police.
The last soldier killed previously in Northern Ireland, 23-year-old Stephen Restorick, was shot by an IRA sniper at a checkpoint in County Armagh on Feb. 12,1997.
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