Behind Northern Ireland's Latest Killing Spree

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Peter Muhly / AFP /Getty

Armed police officers walk in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, on March 10. A police officer was killed nearby the day before

"A good husband has been taken away from me, and my life has been destroyed. And what for? A piece of land that my husband is only going to get six feet of." Thus the anguished words of Kate Carroll, widow of police officer Stephen Carroll, who was murdered on March 9 in what appears to be a revival of the political violence that killed some 3,500 civilians, soldiers, police and paramilitaries over three decades in Northern Ireland.

Until the shooting of Officer Carroll — as well as the double slaying at an Antrim barracks two nights earlier of British soldiers Sapper Mark Quinsey and Sapper Patrick Azimkar — it appeared that Northern Ireland's lengthy peace process had succeeded in ending the violent conflict known locally as the Troubles. Carroll was the first police officer to be killed by Northern Irish terrorists in over a decade. "I had begun to take the process for granted and to regard the peace as irreversible," says Lord Bew, professor of Irish politics at Queen's University Belfast and a legislator in Britain's Upper House. "I was shocked to death [by the killings]," says Belfast native Jim McNally as he strolls along the city's Falls Road. "I just think it's awful. I don't think people were expecting it." (See pictures of Belfast at peace.)

The violence was greeted with revulsion in both the Catholic and Protestant communities and was condemned by all of Northern Ireland's major political parties, both unionist and nationalist.

Two suspects, one just 17 years old, have been arrested in connection with Carroll's murder, and investigators say they are making progress in tracking down the killers of Sappers Quinsey and Azimkar. But the toughest detective work may lie in determining why violence has flared again.

A first clue comes in the bewildering slew of acronyms that clog up every discussion of the situation. RIRA — the self-styled Real IRA — has said that it killed the soldiers, while CIRA — Continuity IRA — laid claim to gunning down Carroll. Factional splits and bloody internecine feuds were long a feature of the covert paramilitary republican movement, and RIRA and CIRA are dissident groups dedicated to destabilizing the peace process. Both groups are breakaways from the Provisional IRA, which, together with its political wing, Sinn Fein, have embraced power-sharing in Northern Ireland and renounced violence. The dissidents accuse them of compromising on the movement's original goal of ending Britain's hold on the territory and reuniting it with the Republic of Ireland. They target the security forces of the British and the devolved Northern Irish governments, but their greatest anger is reserved for their former comrades who have made peace.

The Provisional IRA, the largest and deadliest of the republican paramilitary organizations, declared a cease-fire in 1997 and formally ended its armed campaign in 2005. Sinn Fein has transformed itself from a fringe party to the dominant political party in the Catholic community, and the second largest in Northern Ireland. Former IRA leader Martin McGuinness serves as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland's devolved government. "I supported the IRA during the conflict. I myself was a member of the IRA, but that war is over," said McGuinness in a strong condemnation of the renewed violence. "[The dissidents] are clearly signaling that they want to resume or restart that war. I deny their right to do that."

Although Sinn Fein is firmly wedded to the political process, some Republicans still accept the old twin-track approach of combining the bullet and the ballot. "I recognize the Irish people have an absolute right to take up arms against British rule," says Richard Walsh, spokesman for one such party, Republican Sinn Fein. Walsh says support for the dissidents is growing. "It's inevitable that more people are becoming disillusioned with the Provisionals. They've been lying to their own people for decades now. The traditional base [is] deserting them ever since they decided to recognize the British state and endorse British rule in Ireland."

Despite Walsh's claims, there has been little sign of a migration away from the mainstream Sinn Fein. A Republican Sinn Fein candidate who ran against McGuinness in the 2007 Northern Irish Assembly elections garnered just 437 first-preference votes, to McGuinness's 8,065. But in the past year, intelligence and monitoring organizations have picked up signs of increasing activity among dissident Republican paramilitary groups.

"There have been substantial attempts to recruit, but our view was that, until now, this was not a massive increase in membership," says Lord Alderdice, who serves on the Independent Monitoring Commission, which evaluates intelligence on paramilitary activity. "We've not been talking about substantial organizations." A security source concurs, saying the threat emanates from a "relatively small number of individuals," in groups that may be harder to detect because they "are fragmented and geographically segmented." Sinn Fein has called on its republican supporters to assist the police in combating the dissidents' efforts to reignite violence in Northern Ireland. And that has been welcomed by the party's longtime opponents. Because many of the dissidents are former members of the Provisional IRA, the republican community, including its political leaders, is more likely to have crossed paths with them in the past. "If you're talking about seasoned terrorists, which some of these dissidents seem to be, there's no better source than Sinn Fein itself," says Alex Kane, director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

For now, authorities are expecting further attacks by dissidents. Could such a campaign of violence destabilize the peace? "The [dissidents] have the advantage of a reasonably proximate objective, which is that they will create tensions that will eventually bring the [Northern Ireland] Assembly down. I do not think they will succeed in that," says Lord Bew. He adds the caveat, "Unless there is a particularly wild reaction from loyalists." Police and security services are bracing against the possibility of reprisals by Protestant paramilitary organizations.

The deeper threat to peace, though, may be found in impoverished areas that never benefited from the territory's so-called peace dividend and are the hardest hit by the vertiginous decline of the economy. Such places used to be no-go areas for the police and were effectively controlled by paramilitaries. Sinead Kelly, 18, waits for her partner outside a betting shop on Falls Road, a working-class republican stronghold. "It's frightening around here at night," she says. "I can't even walk down the street with my baby; I'm that scared, in case I meet people with drugs." Her startling conclusion: "I would rather have lived in those days when it was the Troubles." Too young to remember firsthand the horrors inflicted in the name of a reunited Ireland — or of preserving the Union — she knows the paramilitaries used to mete out summary justice to the kinds of petty criminals and thugs who scare her. Social deprivation has always been the best recruiting sergeant for terrorism.

With reporting by Bryan Coll / Belfast