Terror Returns to Northern Ireland

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Police forensic team search the front entrance of Massereene army base after two military personnel were shot dead.

It was supposed to be a thing of the past. But as Northern Ireland awoke Sunday morning to news of its worst atrocity in over a decade, terrorism, it seemed, had made an unwelcome return to life in the province.

The shooting at the Massereene army base in Antrim, north of Belfast, killed two young soldiers and seriously injured four others, including two civilians. Police say the soldiers came under attack when they stepped out to collect a pizza delivery. And by all accounts, the gunmen were intent on nothing less than murder. After they fired their initial shots, they approached the soldiers, some of whom were lying on the ground, and shot them a second time. (See TIME's photos: "New Hope For Belfast.")

The 'Real IRA' is believed to have carried out the attack. The group is one of a number of so-called dissident republicans — hardliners who oppose the power-sharing government between Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic political parties. The 'Real IRA' was also responsible for the Omagh bomb which claimed 29 lives in 1998 — the bloodiest atrocity in Northern Ireland's 30-year sectarian conflict.

Despite their small size, lack of public support and relative invisibility over the past 10 years, there has been an upsurge in dissident activity in recent months. Only last week, MI5 — the United Kingdom's intelligence service — raised the security threat posed by dissident republicans to "severe," meaning an attack was regarded as highly likely. This followed a spate of planned attacks which were intercepted by police, including a car bomb left in a County Down town last month. An earlier MI5 report in January suggested that dissidents may broaden their terror campaigns and attempt attacks on large-scale events such as the 2012 Olympics in London.

On a similar note, Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), revealed last week that he had called in reinforcements to help counter the threat posed by dissident republicans. Orde announced the British Army's Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) was supporting the PSNI with surveillance and intelligence-gathering duties. This was heavily criticized by Catholic politicians, some of whom raised the specter of British troops returning to the streets of Northern Ireland. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein called the SRR deployment "dangerous and stupid."

But after Saturday's murders in Antrim, Sinn Fein may be forced to eat their words. During the Troubles, the party normally refused to condemn the murder of security force personnel, but in today's post-conflict Northern Ireland, the rules of the game have changed. The party's president Gerry Adams described the attacks as "wrong and counter-productive." "[The perpetrators] want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict", he said.

But for one member of the Protestant-backed Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein's response to last night's murders is simply "weasel words." "Last week Sinn Fein made it as difficult as possible for the security forces to act," says William McCrea, who represents the South Antrim constituency where the shooting took place. "They have aided and abetted [dissident republicans] with their objections."

Despite the terrorists' intentions, it's unlikely that Saturday night's murders will derail the peace process. The communal will to avoid a return to the dark days of the Troubles is simply too strong. Yet, until Saturday night, there had been no major terrorist incident to try the collective will of Northern Ireland's most recent power-sharing executive. With the contentious issue of security at the top of the political agenda once again, the cracks in Northern Ireland's fractious devolved government may widen even further.

See TIME's photos of the British army withdrawing from Ulster.