- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND (AP) - When Irish Republican Army dissidents gunned down their first British security forces in more than a decade, they hoped to provoke a steely security crackdown and tit-for-tat attacks that would drag Belfast back into the bad old days.

But Northern Ireland, for decades trapped in a cycle of grievance and vengeance, seems to have learned from its horror-filled past.

Militants from British Protestant districts who long exacted eye-for-an-eye retaliation against Catholics have held their fire, instead reaching out new hands of friendship to old enemies. Thousands of soldiers have remained confined to their barracks well away from the working-class Irish Catholic districts, where IRA splinter groups are trying to recruit the impressionable, idle young.

“The dissidents’ only real hope is that the British do something stupid, play into their hands with some overreaction,” said Brian Feeney, a Belfast political commentator and Catholic schoolteacher. “It looks as though they (British security authorities) are not going to fall into the trap laid for them.”

“We’re finally seeing that the policy of eye for an eye just leaves everybody blind. The peace process means we’re getting to know people on the other side as flesh-and-blood human beings, not targets,” said Jackie McDonald, senior commander of a working-class Protestant paramilitary group called the Ulster Defense Association that has stuck to a cease-fire.

In the past, he said, reprisal would have been automatic.

“Now times have changed and (pro-British) loyalist paramilitaries have matured,” said McDonald, who long directed the killings of Catholics and spent several years in prison for issuing death threats. “They’ll not do what some (Irish) republican with a gun wants them to do.”

When the two main dissident groups struck _ the Real IRA killed two soldiers outside an army base Saturday and a Continuity IRA gunman shot a policeman through the back of the head Monday _ analysts and politicians appeared evenly divided about what the consequences would be.

The killings highlighted one high-risk consequence of peacemaking. Political efforts to soften Catholic hostility toward Northern Ireland, the predominantly Protestant corner of the island that stayed British when the rest of Ireland won independence in 1921, required security forces to “demilitarize” even though the threat from IRA dissidents continued.

A network of surveillance posts and fortified road checkpoints has been removed from the border, where the dissidents are strongest. The 7,500-member police force increasingly patrols in normal uniforms and cars, not bulletproof vests and armored cars. And the 4,000 remaining troops, who once shadowed police on patrols in Catholic areas, have been restricted to training for missions overseas.

As a result, British forces and police in Northern Ireland are more vulnerable. Dissidents have mounted more than 20 attacks in little more than a year, wounding several police officers in gun, rocket and bomb attacks.

The past week’s killings were on targets that simply wouldn’t have existed a few years ago.

Constable Stephen Carroll, 48, was shot through the back window of a normal patrol car; a few years ago, he would have arrived into any hard-line Catholic neighborhood in a thick-armored Land Rover with tiny, bulletproof windows.

The soldiers were killed because the prevailing peace convinced troops it was safe to walk outside the walled base, unarmed and without body armor, to retrieve a fast-food order. Two Real IRA gunmen waited for Domino’s Pizza’s to arrive and raked the crowd with 60 bullets; two soldiers died and four other people, including both delivery men, were badly wounded.

But most analysts say the British security forces have been at risk for years as wider peacemaking goals were pursued. They argue that what’s surprising is that the dissidents didn’t manage a “kill” long before now.

“Why now? Maybe because they were lucky. They have been trying very hard for a long time to kill a policeman,” said Malachi O’Doherty, a Belfast political analyst and author who is skeptical that the dissidents have “upped their game.”

Protestant hard-liners led by Jim Allister, a European Parliament member who has opposed most of the compromises in the past 15 years of peacemaking, have been the loudest voice for a return to heavy-handed security. Allister said Britain’s elite undercover killers, the Special Air Service, should be redeployed in Northern Ireland. Some rank-and-file police officers have supported the call.

But SAS strikes have had mixed results in the past. They are credited with breaking the IRA’s confidence in the late 1980s and early 1990s by decimating several IRA units, but at the same time the attacks fueled anti-British sentiments and the IRA’s ability to attract recruits.

This doesn’t stop Allister from fantasizing about striking back.

“Our present reduced, denuded police cannot cope alone with active republican terrorism. Now is the time to bring in the SAS before it gets out of hand,” Allister urged.

The police in recent weeks have brought in army specialists who are expert in the arts of electronic surveillance and eavesdropping. But police chief Hugh Orde, who possesses political skills rare in a law enforcement official, insists his force will never ask troops for on-the-beat backup even if the dissidents increase the violence.

“We will solve these crimes, we will deliver justice, and we will allow the peace process to continue,” Orde said. “I have no intention to ask the army for routine military support. It’s not necessary _ and it doesn’t work.”

Analysts say the current restraint should keep Northern Ireland from descending into “war zone” status, and ensure that teenage Catholics are more likely to support and join tomorrow’s police, not yesterday’s gunmen.

Kevin Toolis, who wrote a book titled “Rebel Hearts” about the IRA in its SAS-hunted days, said the lesson learned then is that dissidents must be suppressed “through the criminal justice system, and also by penetrating their organizations with informers.”

Dissidents still might build a stronger recruiting base if the outlawed Protestant gunmen, like McDonald’s UDA and a smaller gang called the Ulster Volunteer Force, return to their grisly trade of matching the IRA body count.

The “loyalist” extremists killed nearly 1,000 before calling a joint 1994 cease-fire that still feels shaky today, because they refuse to surrender their weapons stocks as the peace process demands. The IRA, by contrast, formally renounced violence and disarmed in 2005.

McDonald and one of his group’s budding politicians, Frankie Gallagher, admit they’ve been nervous about the possibility that young Protestant hotheads might try to extract revenge.

Earlier this week they led a group of UDA figures to meet Belfast mayor, Tom Hartley of Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that today represents most Catholics. A couple decades ago, McDonald might have sent hit men to kill Hartley. They had never met him or other “Sinners,” shorthand for Hartley’s party.

Their private chat went so well, they did joint interviews on Belfast TV and went to a peace rally together.

“We have to reassure each other. We have to try to watch the backs of people in the Catholic community,” Gallagher said afterward. “And they have to do the same for us. It’s about looking after each other. … If we’re going to fight about anything, let’s fight for peace.”


Editor’s note: Shawn Pogatchnik has covered Northern Ireland for The Associated Press since 1991.

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