Ireland: Thousands gather across North for peace vigils

Thousands of people today took part in silent vigils across the North today in protest at the murder of two British soldiers in Antrim and a policeman in Craigavon by dissident republicans.

At 1pm crowds gathered outside Belfast City Hall, Derry Guildhall and Newry Town Hall in demonstrations organised by trade unions.

Community leaders and politicians asked the public to show its abhorrence at the killings of police constable Stephen Carroll (48) in Craigavon, Co Armagh, on Monday night and soldiers Mark Quinsey (23) and Patrick Azimkar (21) shot dead at Massereene Army barracks in Antrim on Saturday night.

Several thousand gathered at Belfast City Hall for one of the trade union-organised rallies where Peter Bunting, assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, applauded the public’s desire to send a strong message against violence.

“This lunchtime thousands of citizens are gathering to collectively share moments of silence,” he said.

“The trade union movement stands together with all citizens in solidarity to prevent any derailment of the peace process.

“The callous attacks of the past few days were an assault on every citizen who supports peace.

“Here in Belfast, and in Newry, and in Derry, and at spontaneous gatherings across our land, workers and their families are making clear their abhorrence at these murders and the direct threat to the peace process.”

Pope Benedict XVI today denounced the murder of the three security force members as “abominable acts of terrorism”.

He decried the shootings by dissident republicans during an address to pilgrims in St Peter’s Square in Vatican City, saying the shootings seriously endangered the political process aimed at achieving peace and justice.

A Peace Book was opened in Derry Guildhall by the Mayor Gerard Diver for people to register their revulsion.

Meanwhile, police continued to question a 37-year-old man and 17-year-old youth about the murder of Constable Carroll.

They were arrested yesterday as police carried out searches in the Drumbeg estate which overlooked the small residential cul-de-sac where he died while answering a call from a distraught woman who had a brick thrown through her window.

Searches in the estate continued today.

And floral tributes to Constable Carroll continued to build up at the spot where he was shot in a murder claimed by the CIRA.

British prime minister Gordon Brown said today the British government would enhance security in the North.

“Out of this tragedy something is happening that shows that the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the politicians, want the political process to be both maintained and strengthened,” British prime minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons

In advance of the silent vigil in Belfast, Sinn Fein representatives including the city’s Lord Mayor Tom Hartley met with representatives of the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), which is close the loyalist paramilitary the UDA.

After the meeting Frankie Gallagher, of the UPRG, urged loyalists on “not to fall in to the trap” set by those who perpetrated violence over the last few days. He said anybody thinking of reacting to the violence should make sure their reactions were peaceful.

Mr Gallagher described his meeting with Lord Mayor Tom Hartley, Sinn Féin MLA Paul Maskey and party aide Paul Devenney as “crossing a Rubicon” for the group. He was accompanied by UPRG members William McQuiston and Colin Halliday. It was the first time they had met with members of Sinn Fein, he said.

“One of the things that came out was that though we have ideological differences, there are common issues that we need resolutions to and we can work together on all those issues of education, employment and human rights,” he said.

Meanwhile police are understood to be following a definite line of inquiry and are making progress in their investigation into Saturday night’s Real IRA murders.

The threat of further dissident republican attacks remains high, the PSNI, Garda and intelligence services believe. MI5 is strengthening its intelligence-gathering operations to try to gain information that would assist the PSNI in combating the dissidents. “MI5 is reinforcing its operations against these groups,” said a senior British counter-terrorism source last night.

Police suspect the Craigavon shooting was not simply an opportunistic ambush. Constable Carroll was shot as he and two other officers were providing back-up for neighbourhood watch officers dealing with a case of malicious damage to a woman’s home in the Lismore Manor estate.

Detectives suspect the window of the woman’s home was deliberately smashed so police could be lured into the ambush. There was a history of anti-social behaviour in the vicinity.

Constable Carroll, a grandfather and father who had previously resided for a period in Co Kildare, lived in Banbridge in Co Down. He was just two years from retirement.

His wife, Kate, told the Belfast Telegraph , “A good husband has been taken away from me and my life has been destroyed. And what for? A piece of land that my husband is only going to get six feet of. These people have just taken my life as well.”

First Minister Mr Robinson and his deputy Mr McGuinness together visited the home of Ms Carroll in Banbridge yesterday. Earlier at Stormont Castle they presented a strong united front by joining Sir Hugh Orde to condemn the murder and call for public support in tracking down the killers.

Mr McGuinness said he “had a responsibility to lead from the front” and he would lead from the front in urging people with information to give it to the police. He described the dissident republicans as “traitors to the island of Ireland”.

Security south of the Border has been increased following the murders. Assistant Commissioner Mick Feehan, who is in charge of the Garda’s northern region, has instructed chief superintendents to put in place additional checkpoints and patrols along the Border. There are no plans to withdraw what gardaí called a “handful” of Garda members working on secondments with the PSNI as part of an exchange programme between the forces.

Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy and Sir Hugh Orde are due to meet tomorrow.

Clare Swinney

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