Northern Ireland back in the headlines

When we did our list of “insurgencies that refuse to die” last month, one place we left off was Northern Ireland, which for the last decade has been almost entirely peaceful. That peace was shattered on Saturday night when two British soldiers were shot dead, by gunmen from Irish republican splinter group, the Real IRA.  ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
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The front pages of some British newspapers, focusing on the killings of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland, are pictured in London, on March 9, 2009. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday visited the scene of a deadly gun attack on an army base in Northern Ireland as leaders tried to gauge the threat level facing peace in the province. A dissident republican group opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process apparently claimed it shot dead two British soldiers, the first such killing in 12 years. AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal (Photo credit should read Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

When we did our list of "insurgencies that refuse to die" last month, one place we left off was Northern Ireland, which for the last decade has been almost entirely peaceful. That peace was shattered on Saturday night when two British soldiers were shot dead, by gunmen from Irish republican splinter group, the Real IRA. 

All parties involved have vowed the the killings will not affect the peace process, though Ulster Unionist MPs have grumbled about the initiial "ambiguous" response from the Irish republican party Sinn Féin. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams did denounce the attacks but condemned a decision by Northern Ireland's cheif constable to bring in undercover British troops to monitor Republican militants:

When we did our list of “insurgencies that refuse to die” last month, one place we left off was Northern Ireland, which for the last decade has been almost entirely peaceful. That peace was shattered on Saturday night when two British soldiers were shot dead, by gunmen from Irish republican splinter group, the Real IRA. 

All parties involved have vowed the the killings will not affect the peace process, though Ulster Unionist MPs have grumbled about the initiial “ambiguous” response from the Irish republican party Sinn Féin. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams did denounce the attacks but condemned a decision by Northern Ireland’s cheif constable to bring in undercover British troops to monitor Republican militants:

Paul Bew, a professor of Irish Politics and Belfast’s Queens University, explains for The Times why the killings put Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in a difficult political position:

[T]he target is the British Army not the local police force. Ideologically speaking the dissidents have now challenged Mr Adams in a way the murder of fellow Irishmen would not have done. This is a decisive moment in the history of the “Brits Out” mentality in Northern Ireland.

That is why Mr Adams is careful to denounce the murders as counter- productive in the struggle for Irish unity. But he has also said that they were wrong and more important that he supports the police in the apprehension of the killers.

This comes at a moment when the Chief Constable’s decision to employ Special Forces soldiers in the Province presents Mr Adams with his second difficulty. Sir Hugh Orde will undoubtedly argue that his decision was justified by the seriousness of the security crisis now so amply demonstrated. Mr Adams initially responded that the decision meant the Chief Constable risked losing the support of the majority of republicans.

But as former Tony Blair spokesman Alastair Campbell wrote on his blog, the mere fact that Sinn Féin could quickly condemn the attacks as “counterproductive” is a sign of how much progress has been made:

“Gerry Adams and [fellow Sinn Féin leader] Martin McGuinness go about their business with a modicum of fear that someone might come along and blow their brains out. Their words, when they came, underlined just how far we have come.”

While tragic and disturbing, these murders don’t seem likely to upset Northern Ireland’s considerable progress significantly. But with the former Eastern Bloc in economic turmoil and terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland, Europe is starting to look like the early ’90s in a very bad way.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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