- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

LURGAN, NORTHERN IRELAND (AP) - Graffiti on the Catholic side of town condemn Sinn Fein politicians as British stooges. Alongside black-stenciled images of masked gunmen, slogans proclaim allegiance to IRA dissidents who fatally shot a policeman a few miles away.

On Saturday, teenage boys here blocked roads and threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at police who arrested a local man wanted for the killing of two off-duty British soldiers.

Sinn Fein has persuaded most of Northern Ireland’s Irish Catholics to accept peace through compromise. But the Irish nationalist party still struggles for the loyalty of job-hungry, lawless Catholic neighborhoods like Kilwilkie, on the wrong side of the tracks in this mostly Protestant town.

If Sinn Fein cannot win over such pockets of bitterness and alienation, the dissidents could grow in numbers and strength _ and eventually mount far deadlier attacks than this month’s shootings of soldiers and a policeman. Analysts say power-sharing _ the central achievement of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal _ could not survive a sustained campaign of paramilitary bloodshed.

Sinn Fein pleasantly surprised its Protestant partners in government this month by calling on its backers to help police track down and imprison the gunmen. But the move means Sinn Fein has finally put itself on a collision course with dangerous die-hards in its own working-class base _ people who still inspire a potent mixture of fear and reverence.

“You wouldn’t want to be seen by certain neighbors calling the police, let’s leave it at that,” said Marie, a Catholic mother of four pushing her two youngest children in a stroller uphill from Kilwilkie, past the railway line, to the Protestant center of Lurgan.

Like several other residents interviewed before and after Saturday’s riots, Marie would talk only if her last name and other details of her identity were concealed.

“The fear is back,” she said. “When the `troubles’ were on, you were always afraid of what the other side might do to you up in town. Now you’re much more afraid to speak your mind for fear of what your own people might do to you back home.”

The fear in Kilwilkie centers on supporters of Colin Duffy, whom police and locals alike regard as the IRA godfather figure of the neighborhood. He was repeatedly charged with IRA murders and other crimes in the 1990s _ including for shooting two policemen through the back of the head in what was the IRA’s last fatal attack _ but was never successfully prosecuted.

Duffy publicly broke away from Sinn Fein last year and joined a new group fronted by IRA veterans called Eirigi, “Rise up” in Gaelic. The group said it wasn’t promoting dissident violence but understood why people might want to keep attacking security forces in a state that remains firmly British territory.

Police arrested Duffy on Saturday on suspicion of involvement in the first deadly dissident attack March 7, when a splinter group called the Real IRA opened fire on off-duty soldiers collecting pizzas from two delivery men. Two soldiers were killed and four others, including both civilians, were badly wounded.

Duffy’s mostly teenage acolytes covered their faces with masks, scarves and hoods _ and bombarded police for hours. Because of their heavy protective equipment, officers reported only one minor injury. Sinn Fein, which often deploys officials to calm crowds and prevent riots in Belfast, was nowhere to be seen.

The area’s Sinn Fein representative in the Northern Ireland Assembly, John O’Dowd, lives in the neighboring town of Craigavon. It was there that the Continuity IRA shot to death a policeman March 9 as his unit responded to an emergency call near the hard-line Catholic Drumbeg housing project.

O’Dowd called that killing “murder,” a word that Sinn Fein never used when describing the IRA’s killings of nearly 300 police from 1970 to 1997.

He said he has been trying to talk sense to dissident leaders in the area for more than a year, but they rejected his overtures.

“There is no point in building a power-sharing agreement, a new society and a new policing service just for people to take shots at them and kill people who are part of that new creation,” said O’Dowd, 41, who unlike the previous generation of Sinn Fein leaders never spent time in prison for IRA convictions.

O’Dowd conceded that Sinn Fein’s call for its supporters to tell police about the dissidents in their midst “is placing myself and others in my party in great personal difficulty. But we’re prepared for that.”

He said some of the dissident leaders “were never with us. Some may have been in the past, and they went away. And I’m glad they went away.”

Just as police officers are having to increase their personal security precautions across Northern Ireland, so are Sinn Fein activists. They have learned from the fratricidal history of Irish republicanism _ when splits lead to bloody feuds _ that it could just be a matter of time before the Real IRA, Continuity IRA or another band of alienated militants turns its guns on republican peaceniks.

Some analysts even openly wonder whether Martin McGuinness _ the former IRA commander who is Sinn Fein’s top official in the power-sharing government _ might face a dissident assassin’s bomb or bullet someday. McGuinness infuriated the dissidents last week, before leaving on his current United States trip, by calling them “traitors to the island of Ireland.”

Belfast commentator and author Malachi O’Doherty said McGuinness was taking the same blunt-spoken road as Michael Collins, the key figure in the old IRA’s 1919-21 war of independence against Britain. When Collins signed a treaty that accepted the partition of Ireland and created a new southern state still symbolically tied to Britain, he was assassinated by the anti-treaty IRA faction within the year.

“I am not concerned about my safety and my security,” McGuinness said during a public appearance Sunday in New York City. “I am not going to be intimidated.”

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