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Fear returns to Northern Ireland

After two soldiers are killed, leaders vow to maintain power-sharing agreement.

Members of the congregation of a local Catholic Church say a prayer near Massereene army base in Northern Ireland, where two British soldiers were shot dead and four other people were wounded on March 8, 2009. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)
DUBLIN — Those of us who lived through the Northern Ireland troubles thought the days were gone when we would wake up to hear on the morning radio bulletin that another British soldier had been killed. It hadn’t happened for 12 years.
So the news that two soldiers had been shot dead at the Massereene military base in County Antrim on Saturday night came as a shocking reminder that the peace process, in which the British, Irish and U.S. governments have invested so much in time and money, is still a work in progress.
It was notable that the soldiers were killed at one of the few army bases in Northern Ireland.
The assassins had to go there to find them, as British Army patrols, once so ubiquitous on the streets, largely have withdrawn to barracks.
In fact, security  had become so relaxed at the Massereene barracks that soldiers there often were seen strolling in plain clothes in the park beside nearby Antrim Lough, distinguished only by their English accents and regulation haircuts.
This morning, just hours after the shooting, I happened to be at a literary conference in Ennis, County Clare, sharing a platform with the President of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, and others to debate the nature of political writing.
Adams, who is largely credited with persuading the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) to end its campaign of violence and decommission its weapons, was utterly despondent on hearing of the soldiers’ deaths, widely blamed on a dissident faction of the IRA.
“Those responsible have no support, no strategy to achieve a united Ireland,” he complained. “Their intention is to bring British soldiers back onto the streets. They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict.”
Asked about his own record — he used to support attacks on the British Army — Adams replied that the peace process that he sponsored had led to two major accords, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the 2006 St. Andrews Agreements, which had resulted in the sharing of power in Northern Ireland and the creation of all-Ireland institutions.
The shooting is without doubt the biggest crisis in the peace process since the power-sharing government, currently headed by Peter Robinson of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, was established in May 2008.
The two leaders have delayed a planned visit to the White House next week during which they were to meet President Barack Obama as part of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
While the power-sharing deal is not in immediate danger, fear has returned to Northern Ireland — fear of going back to a cycle of killings and fear of a heavy-handed military response.