Northern Ireland refuses to cede peace

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 andCraigavon.

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 ofNorthern 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.