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Amid threats, Northern Ireland clings to peace

On a somber St. Patrick's Day, Belfast carries on as extremists try to end a decade of calm.

By Don DuncanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2009

Reason to smile: N. Ireland has been marred by recent violence, but Belfast's St. Patrick's Day parade offered a chance for fun.

peter morrison/ap

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Belfast, Northern Ireland

This year's St. Patrick's day parade weaved through a Belfast wrestling once again with its old sectarian demons.

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Attacks on British soldiers and a Northern Irish policeman over the past two weeks by dissident republican groups are testing the strength of the Northern Irish peace process and are bringing dark memories into sharp focus for many Roman Catholics and Protestants.

"These attacks have served to remind us all of what we don't want to go back to," said David Power, as he stood on the sidewalk watching the parade pass, a small Irish flag hanging limply from his hand. "It shows us all how fragile the peace here really is, something I think we were beginning to take for granted."

Mr. Power is a Catholic from Londonderry, a city hit hard by violence during the three decades of violence. The recent killings, he said, "took me back to when I was growing up."

Paradegoers spoke of the recent attacks as isolated events, a mere bump in the road. But security experts and community leaders say this is could be just the beginning of a planned campaign by dissident republican groups, like the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, which claimed responsibility for the recent violence. Along with emerging loyalist groups – fueled by retaliatory desires – the extremists appear bent on stoking dormant sectarian hatreds and imploding the province's decade-old peace.

"These developments represent a substantial threat, and one that is not going to be dealt with in just 24 hours," says David Bernside, a deputy of Northern Ireland's legislative assembly and member of the Ulster Unionist Party. "What we have here are very sophisticated organizations capable of murder, so it will take some time to deal with them."

The recent murders are the latest in a year-long string of attacks by dissident republican groups against the police and Army, including at least 10 failed murder attempts involving drive-by shootings, car bombs, booby traps, and even homemade rocket-propelled grenades.

According to a security source familiar with policing in Northern Ireland, who spoke on condition of anonymity, patterns emerged from these failed attempts that are informing the investigations of the recent killings.

Many of the attacks targeted Catholic police officers, the security source said. "All the individuals attacked were well known in their areas for having joined the [Police Service of Northern Ireland]. They were proud of joining the police and made no secret of it."

This included Stephen Carroll, the Catholic policeman shot March 9 by the Continuity IRA.

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