- - Monday, May 16, 2011

DUBLIN — As Queen Elizabeth II becomes the first British monarch to make a diplomatic visit to the Republic of Ireland in almost a century, her trip Tuesday also symbolically will mark the official end to Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.”

But the murder of a young police officer last month in the British province of Northern Ireland coupled with a bomb threat against the queen in London has many wondering if the fragile peace between Catholics and Protestants is on the verge of shattering.

On April 2, a bomb planted by dissident Catholic terrorists exploded under the car of Officer Ronan Kerr, 25, in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh.

Kerr had grown up near the end of the Troubles, the sectarian conflict that has scarred Northern Ireland for decades and killed thousands. But he was a Catholic and a police officer and thus branded a traitor by the dissidents.

As a result, the guns that the 1998 peace accord was thought to have silenced seem to be resurfacing, and some say that the willingness to believe the war was permanently over is a mistake.

“I’m gobsmacked that people think the dissidents don’t matter [just] because their capacity isnt the same as that of the Provos in the 1980s,” said Aaron Edwards, author of “The Northern Ireland Conflict: A Beginner’s Guide.”

He was referring to the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which officially gave up its armed struggle for the unification of Northern Ireland with the republic in the south. Former IRA fighters are now politicians in the north.

“All it would take is for dissident republicans to kill a Protestant, any Protestant, and that would provoke a reaction” from loyalist paramilitaries, Mr. Edwards added.

The conflict erupted in 1969 after loyalists attacked Catholic areas while the loyalist-dominated police officers stood by. Catholic republicans and nationalists sought unification with the Republic of Ireland and mostly Protestant unionists wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

By 1998, the population was exhausted. After negotiations between the British and Irish governments, local political parties and both Irish republican and pro-British loyalist paramilitary groups, the “Good Friday” peace accord was signed.

Since then, there is no doubt that things have changed in Northern Ireland, most say.

That a police officer could hail from a nationalist background was seen as a mark of how far Northern Ireland had come in the past dozen years. Before being reformed as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was almost exclusively Protestant and unionist. The force is now about 30 percent Catholic.

Still, Northern Ireland remains a divided society with simmering tensions that often boil over into the streets.

“We talk about the ‘dis’ words: disillusioned, disgruntled, dissident,” said Michael Hall, a community peace activist in Belfast who has worked with republicans and loyalists for 30 years.

“There are people who have been labeled dissidents in a derogatory sense, but there are also people who would be disaffected but who would not want to go back to violence.”

Northern Ireland is ruled by a mandatory form of coalition government. All parties, republican and unionist, are represented to ensure that republican voices were not silenced by a unionist bloc.

Northern Irelands deputy prime minister, Martin McGuinness, himself a former IRA leader, has called the dissidents “traitors.”

Meanwhile, the question of a united Ireland lingers. The story of the Provisional IRA is one of former revolutionaries settling for reform. This in itself has bred discontent among hard-liners, said Mick Fealty who runs an influential political blog SluggerOToole.com.

“For republicans, the promise of the peace process was more substantial than what has been delivered,” he said. “So, as the gun smoke began to clear, it became obvious that moves toward a united Ireland have not been delivered.”

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