Policeman Shot Dead in Northern Ireland

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Peter Morrison/AP

A Police Service of Northern Ireland officer takes up position near Lismore Manor, Craigavon, Northern Ireland

A misconceived "new town," built in the 1960s and promoted as an urban utopia, Craigavon looks like the forlorn kind of place where nothing ever happens. Last night, just 48 hours after the murder of two British soldiers by a dissident republican terrorist group, it saw the kind of action Northern Ireland thought it had left behind for good. A policeman, Constable Stephen Paul Carroll, was shot dead in a nationalist area of the town — northern Irish conurbations still tend to be divided along political and religious lines. Carroll was the first officer to be shot dead in Northern Ireland for 12 years.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for this latest attack, and suspicions naturally pointed to the Real IRA, the group behind last Saturday's double murder at an army barracks in Antrim. On Tuesday morning, another splinter group, Continuity IRA, said they were behind the latest murder. Both groups were started by members of the Provisional IRA, who disagreed with the peace process, but have recently recruited younger members. They remain tiny organizations but the attacks raise the spectre of a new campaign of terrorist violence; something most people in Northern Ireland had thought they would never see again. (See TIME's photos of the British army withdrawing from Ulster.)

"We are staring into the abyss," said Dolores Kelly, a local representative of the moderate, nationalist SDLP party at the scene of last night's murder. "All of us have to get together to pull ourselves away from the brink. A tiny handful of people cannot be allowed to destroy so much."

The circumstances surrounding the gun attack remain unclear. The murdered man was part of a back-up team responding to what police have described as a "call for help from a vulnerable person." He was shot as he got out of a police vehicle.

"These people are criminal psychopaths," said Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland at a quickly convened press conference on Monday night. "They are determined to wreck what 99% of the people in Northern Ireland want." Orde acknowledged his officers face a serious threat but said "We will continue unrelenting in our job to protect the community."

Northern Ireland's police force was a primary target for the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. Overwhelmingly Protestant in its membership, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was detested by many Catholics, with the staunchest republican neighborhoods effectively becoming no-go areas for RUC officers. Over 300 policemen and women were murdered during Northern Ireland's 30-year conflict. (See pictures of new hope for Belfast.)

Although policing still remains a divisive issue in Northern Ireland, the rebranding of the RUC into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2001 changed the image of law enforcement dramatically. A policy of positive discrimination has seen the number of Catholic officers jump from less than 3% to over 20% in five years. The force has also launched recruitment drives to attract more women and ethnic minorities. Members of Sinn Fein, the republican political party with close links to the IRA, now sit on Northern Ireland's Policing Board. Monday's shooting, therefore, was both an attack on an old enemy and an assault on one of the most progressive symbols of the new Northern Ireland.

But for those monitoring Northern Ireland's security situation in recent times, this spate of attacks had a depressing sense of inevitability. Earlier this month, 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. Furthermore, the murder in Craigavon wasn't the first time dissidents have tried to kill police officers. An off-duty policeman was shot by the Real IRA in County Tyrone in November 2007, but survived. Security forces in Northern Ireland also say they have foiled major terrorist attacks by dissidents, including defusing a 300lb car bomb left outside a County Down town last month.

It was this upsurge in terrorist activity that led Sir Hugh Orde to request the support of the British Army's Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) in the PSNI's intelligence-gathering operations. Sinn Fein — traditionally hostile to any ramp-up of British security forces — reacted with anger. Less than a week before the murder of the soldiers in Antrim, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described the use of these special forces as "a major threat".

Now the party has switched gears. Sinn Fein's Assembly member for Craigavon, John O'Dowd, condemned last night's killing as "wrong and counter productive". With Northern Ireland's largest parties all united in condemnation of the attacks and its citizens overwhelmingly opposed to a return to violence, it's unlikely that the dissidents will seriously undermine the democratic institutions their actions are designed to destabilize. But even if the peace process is intact, the peace of Northern Ireland's streets has been seriously disrupted.

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

See pictures of new hope for Belfast.