Analysis // Grant LallyNorthern Ireland terror attacks make for uneasy St. Patrick's Day

Published 17 March 2009

The dissident republican splinter terror groups which killed two British soldiers and a Northern Ireland police officer this weekend hope to re-ignite sectarian violence in the province; far from igniting a new civil war, the attacks brought together Protestant and Catholics; for the sake of Northern Ireland’s stability and future, however, the unresolved policing issue should be addressed soon


The St. Patrick’s week killing of two British soldiers and a Northern Ireland police officer by dissident republican splinter terror groups — acts done to inflame intercommunal hostility — raised fears of a return to violence in Northern Ireland. Far from igniting a new civil war, however, the attacks brought together protestant and catholic leaders in Northern Ireland — even former paramilitary rivals — in a show of common cause against the killings.

The greater danger lies in the current crisis exacerbating current political differences — over the pace of devolution of policing; the use of military intelligence domestically to augment the local police — or the whetting of a vicarious nostalgia among disaffected youth, which could lend credence or recruits to the dissidents’ attacks against the entire political structure.

Dissident republicans may be “disrupted, infiltrated and disorganized” in the words of Northern Ireland’s chief constable Hugh Orde, and number a mere 300 individuals out of a province of 1.7 million, but the killings have shaken the sense of security in what had become an increasingly prosperous, and seemingly safe, Northern Ireland.

In the wake of the killings, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) arrested nine suspects, and after one arrest, battled a mob of mostly teen-aged rioters, hurling bricks and gasoline bombs in the town of Lurgan. The riots, perhaps even more than the killings, sent shudders through Northern Irish society. The lack of any wider riots, however, and the quick reaction by former Irish Republican Army (IRA) leaders such as current Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, who denounced the killers as “traitors to the island of Ireland…” seems to have quieted any appetite for mayhem.

The leaders of one former paramilitary group even took this crisis as an opportunity to come in from the cold, in an under-reported, but important development. Two days after the killings, Frankie Gallagher and other representatives of the outlawed “loyalist” paramilitary Ulster Defense Association (UDA) — which in the 1970s claimed more than 40,000 armed members — held its first-ever public meeting with their former arch-rivals in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, including Tom Hartley, now lord mayor of Belfast.

Hailed as a model peace process, the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements ended the bloody 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, often called simply “the Troubles.” More than 3,300 people were killed in the Troubles, which pitted the British government and its allied Loyalist paramilitaries,