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Nervous Stability In Northern Ireland

Peter Bluff has been a producer at the CBS News London bureau since 1982.


(AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Two men have now been arrested in the killing of a Northern Ireland police officer earlier this month, a 17-year-old and a 37-year-old. Both were carrying assault rifles and ammunition when arrested and both were charged with membership in the "so-called" Continuity IRA.

All sides of Northern Ireland's community agree that arrests and progress with investigations in such high-profile killings are good for police and public morale, but it's a different issue that's consuming the politicians right now.

As several other suspects are still being questioned about the shootings, there is concern about the length of time they've been held without charge. Catholic politicians believe it's too long — that the 28 days allowed is a violation of human rights. Protestant politicians say the police should be allowed to get on with their interrogations, no matter how long it takes.

Otherwise, Northern Ireland's politicians have shown surprising unity in stressing that the two recent atrocities are not a return to the bad old days, and that everyone should stay calm and tell the police what they know.

Those beyond the immediate politics are also convinced that this is not the beginning of a massive new round of violence.

Irish poet Shamus Heaney, 70, said he felt "a desolation... a deep grief" that Northern Ireland, the country of his birth, appeared to have "kicked off again," as he put it.

As an iconic "great Irishman," he was going along with the theme. Even the interviewer sounded unconvincing, like a man who felt he had to ask the question. That's because there is an uneasy, but general feeling that the killing of two soldiers and a policeman was not, in fact, a return to the bad old days of The Troubles.

"The deaths were a brutal ignorant waste," said Heaney. In the old days, he said, "there was a sense of freedom fighting. On both sides there was a large cause involved."

But then, he embraced reality. "Once there was a cause... but now the killings have become sheer terrorism and the community on both sides has suddenly learnt what that means.

"The institutions of government are now in place and there is a respect for that."

Heaney got it right. There is a kind of respect for the politicians in Northern Ireland, and it's been a long time coming. The institutions are in place and a sense of order is clearly in place, too.

It's not a perfect society, there are crimes and hooligans and although everywhere there still exists a hatred for any kind of British presence in the Province, both sides are trying hard.

The main characters of both sides of the still-fragile "political divide" have spoken with a collective dignity. The fact is Northern Ireland has no stomach for a return to the bad old days.

A small band of dissatisfied characters is still present, and, of course, they know where to buy guns if they really want them. There are organizations they can join, where, in the excitement of secrecy, they can grumble and plot. But it's hard to imagine any of it gaining the sort of traction that the IRA or the Protestant paramilitaries used to offer.

There is though, still some terrible violence in Northern Ireland - a cynic would call it "normal" violence. Of the 25 murders recorded last year in the province, 11 had a domestic motivation. That's a kind of progress. There are more recorded crimes with a domestic motivation than the combined total of sexual offences, robbery, armed robbery, hijacking, vehicle theft, arson, dangerous driving, handling stolen goods and offences cited under anti-terror legislation.

But if this makes everything sound oddly normal, the dangerous little groups with IRA agendas do remain, and they are a frightening irritant to real peace. A source close to the British government says the "Continuity" and "Real" IRA groups don't make plans together. They are not a unit and the recent killings were only coincidentally close.

There is thought to be no mass support — though, clearly, individuals can be terribly dangerous.

The Continuity IRA, hungry for attention, has now extended its murder agenda to prison officers. A number of officers serving at a high-security jail have been warned that some of their personal details are now known to the dissident group. Three weeks ago a prison was put on alert after the Continuity IRA warned that a bomb had been attached to a named prison warder's car.

No device was found, but it added to a general, simmering fear in the province that will not go away. At least not while Belfast's walls remain in place to remind everyone that this is still essentially a sectarian ghetto, in which Catholics and Protestants remain wary of each other.

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