12 April 2006

From bombs to bricks to bombs again

International Herald Tribune

John S. Burnett - The New York Times

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 12, 2006
CROSSMAGLEN, Northern Ireland

Here in this border town, the spirits are high. The British Army this week began dismantling the hated Gulag-like watchtowers that stand menacingly over farms, homes, residents and, most important, cross-border traffic from Ireland. The move is the latest phase in the demilitarization program by the British government last summer after the Irish Republican Army announced it had abandoned its 30-year armed struggle.

The outlook is similarly positive south of the border. On Monday, the Irish will be celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which led to creation of the Irish Republic. The country's defense minister, Willie O'Dea, told The Guardian that the ceremonies in Dublin will signal the recognition that Northern Ireland's sectarian bloodletting is over.

But we are in what locals call the slurry season, the time of year before planting when farmers spread a watery mixture of cow manure over their fields, producing a stench that hovers over the countryside. Many here fear that the relative peace that reigns over Northern Ireland today may be just so much slurry.

It is not widely known on the British mainland or in the Irish-American community that the Troubles continue today. For the people of Crossmaglen and elsewhere in the province,violence threatens to boil over at the slightest excuse.

One evening last week, I was with Michael Doherty, whose job it is to mediate conflicts between Protestant and Catholic communities. He received a call from police headquarters in Londonderry asking him to get out to an "interface community" - a housing area where Catholics live on one side of the street and Protestants on the other.

"They're brickin' each other," Doherty said, as we sped across the river to Waterside. "We call it recreational rioting. It's getting worse - now it's nearly every night. That's worrisome."

"Tonight they are only throwing rocks," Doherty said. "Sometimes it's petrol bombs." With the help of the police, he managed to calm things down.

The war continues among the grownups as well. In January, British soldiers disabled a car bomb planted outside the Armagh City Hotel and Convention Center, a large complex overlooking the Catholic and Protestant cathedrals. It merited a small article in a local newspaper.

Dissident republicans said they put the bomb at the complex because it had been the site of conventions for a predominately non-Catholic police organization. Had it gone off, the bomb - two large gas cylinders that had been vented so that with windows shut the car itself became the bomb - would surely have taken lives and destroyed property. It also would have done considerable damage to the sputtering peace process.

According to Major Gino Harris, commander of the 321 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, the British Army bomb squads were called out 495 times last year in Northern Ireland. While most of the calls were hoaxes intended simply to prove that the struggle continues, 51 were "viable devices" - live bombs.

There are, of course, other ways to disrupt the uneasy peace. Summer means the end of the slurry season, but also the height of the "marching season." This is the period when the Orange Order, the staunchly Unionist Protestant society, marches through Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

While these provocative parades have occurred annually since 1795, the word in the pubs and on the street is that nobody should be surprised if these marches are disrupted more frequently and more violently than they have been in the past. If this happens, sectarian chaos can be expected to ensue.

Gerry Doherty, who served 15 years in Long Kesh prison for blowing up the Guildhall in Londonderry in 1973, is also worried that dissident republicans could return Northern Ireland to the most violent days of the Troubles. "What do they want to do, fight for another... 30 years?" he said. "We couldn't beat the British, how... do they think they're going to do it?"

It is not only republican dissidents who are the concern. Unionists with their own paramilitaries and a history of anti-Catholic violence have so far refused to turn in their weapons. To them, the British military drawdown amounts to abandonment, an endorsement of a Dublin-led Ireland. It is no secret that Unionist paramilitaries are just as eager to see the peace process scuttled, forcing the British to maintain a strong military presence.

Efforts to reach a political agreement between Unionists and Sinn Fein, the political party of the Irish Republican Army, took a hit with the puzzling assassination on April 4 of Denis Donaldson, a former high-ranking member of the Irish Republican Army who admitted last year that he served as a British spy.

Whether Donaldson was killed by dissidents, by British agents for whom he worked, or by others, is as yet unknown. But there is little doubt the murder was timed to coincide with the meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland (at the same Armagh City Hotel), who announced a take-it-or-leave-it blueprint for power sharing in the province.

Certainly, Northern Ireland is more peaceful today than it was 10 years ago. Outside investment has increased, shopping centers are being built, tourism is increasing.

Catholics still fly Irish flags and paint their sidewalks orange, green and white; Protestants still fly the Union Jack and paint their curbs red, white and blue - but in many communities the flags and paint are fading. So, too, are the controversial murals that accompany them.

While these are signs that people here are no longer still openly at war, it doesn't mean that peace has broken out to the extent that the rest of the world thinks it has. "The threat has not gone away," said Captain Colin Whitworth, a bomb disposal officer in the 321 who lost his left hand disabling a Unionist bomb. "But the people are fed up with the violence."

John S. Burnett, the author of "Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas," is writing a book about bomb disposal.

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