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SUE REID reports on a worsening situation in Northern Ireland


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Eight staccato shots from a handgun fire into the air above an open coffin laid on the grass in a suburban garden. The dead man’s face is plainly visible. 

A tall, masked figure wearing paramilitary black stands behind him. As the last shot rings out, another man wearing a business suit applauds.

The gunman remains hidden in the menacing video filmed a few weeks ago. Only his hand, wearing a blue latex glove to conceal his fingerprints, can be seen as he pulls the trigger.

Despite the noble ambitions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it has become clear that parts of Northern Ireland remain bitterly and perilously divided, writes SUE REID. Above: Petrol bombs are thrown at the police on the night of journalist Lyra McKee’s murder in April

But that is not the most shocking aspect of this sinister scene. Just a few feet from the coffin is a group of children, two of them only seven or eight years old.

They are solemnly watching the send-off of a convicted Irish Republican Army (IRA) killer behind a house on Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, the then U.S. president Bill Clinton said it ‘opened the way for the people… to build a society based on enduring peace, justice and equality’.

Yet despite those noble ambitions, it has become clear that parts of Northern Ireland remain bitterly and perilously divided.

The dead man in the coffin was Alex Murphy, a former IRA kingpin who was jailed for life after the street-murder in Belfast of two British Army corporals in 1988, a decade before the Agreement was signed. 

The soldiers were dragged by a mob from their car after straying into an IRA militant’s funeral cortege: they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While terror is glamorised here, attracting local youngsters, so, too, is the peace, writes SUE REID. Above: A car is set on fire in Creggan, Londonderry, near to where Lyra McKee was murdered in April

While terror is glamorised here, attracting local youngsters, so, too, is the peace, writes SUE REID. Above: A car is set on fire in Creggan, Londonderry, near to where Lyra McKee was murdered in April

But Mr Murphy’s ‘military’ funeral — his black IRA beret and leather gloves placed reverentially on top of his coffin — is not the only recent evidence to have stoked fears about the future of peace.

As the Mail discovered in Belfast, a willingness to commit violence is growing among some groups, threatening the uneasy peace that has persisted on the island of Ireland for a generation.

They are accused of seeking to exploit concerns about the possibility of a new hard or ‘soft’ border being erected after Brexit between Northern Ireland — which is part of the United Kingdom — and the Republic, which will remain part of the EU.

Who are the New IRA?

The New IRA is the biggest of the dissident republican groups operating in Northern Ireland.

It has been linked with four murders, including PC Ronan Kerr, who was killed by an under-car bomb in Omagh in 2011.

The group is also linked to the deaths of prison officers David Black, who was shot as he drove to work at Maghaberry Prison in 2012, and Adrian Ismay, who died in 2016 after a bomb exploded under his van outside his home in east Belfast.

The New IRA is believed to have been formed between 2011 and 2012 following the merger of a number of smaller groups, including the Real IRA – the group behind the 1998 Omagh bomb.

It is strongest in Derry, north and west Belfast, Strabane in Co Derry, Lurgan in Co Armagh, and pockets of Tyrone.

This year the group was responsible for a car bomb outside the courthouse in Bishop Street, Derry.

The explosives-laden car was left on the city centre street on a Saturday night in January, and scores of people, including a group of teenagers, had walked past before it detonated.

The New IRA also claimed a number of package bombs posted to targets in London and Glasgow in March.

It’s a technical problem that showed no sign of being solved following Boris Johnson’s visit to Dublin yesterday — his first meeting with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar since he entered No 10. 

According to a joint statement released afterwards, ‘common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain’.

Meanwhile, attitudes behind the ongoing violence in Ireland continue to play out on social media.

Footage has been posted online of a party at a fiercely Republican Belfast pub. 

It shows Catholic children of primary-school age singing and dancing to a pro-IRA song with a chorus line: ‘We hate the Queen.’

The youngsters, delightedly waving their hands in the air, know the lyrics and tune by heart. 

The video is likely to be investigated by Belfast police as a hate crime. 

It was reported by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician Jim Wells.

The party has a radical history of its own, with some of its followers historically linked to loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

But Mr Wells told the Mail: ‘I was utterly appalled at this event which indoctrinated children and promoted hatred and bitterness.

‘What was more sinister is that adults in the film were clearly encouraging their children to join in by cheering them on.’

If that were not shocking enough, a third video has emerged showing Protestant teenagers chanting a vile song in a Belfast bar after a Northern Ireland international football match. 

Wearing the national team’s shirts, they sing: ‘We hate Catholics, we hate Roman Catholics,’ to the tune of a 1980s pop song. 

One Catholic footballer from Northern Ireland said: ‘These people are savages… This kind of thing happened 40 years ago. It wasn’t acceptable then, it isn’t now.’

How can such disturbing events be happening years after a peace agreement lauded by the world?

The truth is that militant sectarianism has returned to the island with deadly force.

In March, five explosive packages were posted to addresses in mainland Britain and across the Republic. 

They were sent, by an outfit calling itself the New IRA, to London’s Waterloo Station, buildings near Heathrow and London City airports and the University of Glasgow.

Another letter bomb was found at a mail depot in County Limerick.

Ms McKee was standing next to a police vehicle on the Creggan estate in Londonderry when she was shot in the head by a gunman from the new IRA group in April

Ms McKee was standing next to a police vehicle on the Creggan estate in Londonderry when she was shot in the head by a gunman from the new IRA group in April

A month later, 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was killed during rioting in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. 

Mobile and CCTV footage of the night shows a man firing a handgun at police.

McKee, who was standing near an armoured police car, was shot in the head and later died in hospital. 

Her murder was believed to have been committed by the New IRA.

By June, there was more trouble. The New IRA claimed responsibility for a bomb, said to have contained ‘high-powered plastic explosives’, that had been placed under a police officer’s car at a golf club in east Belfast.

The head of Northern Ireland police’s Terrorism Investigation Unit said: ‘It was clearly intended to kill the police officer… It is very fortunate that this device was detected before it exploded.’

The following month, dissident Republicans tried to murder police officers in an attack in Craigavon, County Armagh.

And just a few weeks ago, a bomb exploded in Fermanagh, another of Northern Ireland’s six counties, in what police say was part of an attempt to lure officers and British Army bomb disposal experts to their deaths.

This CCTV image shows the man (circled) suspected of firing the shots that killed Lyra McKee at a protest in Londonderry on Thursday, April 18

This CCTV image shows the man (circled) suspected of firing the shots that killed Lyra McKee at a protest in Londonderry on Thursday, April 18 

The leader of Saoradh (‘Liberation’ in Irish) — a party widely regarded as the New IRA’s political wing — warned the other day that the continuation of violence is ‘inevitable’. 

In an interview on Sky News, Saoradh leader Brian Kenna refused to condemn the murder of Lyra McKee, only saying it was ‘regrettable’.

McKee’s partner Sara Canning called his remarks ‘appalling’.

Mr Kenna, a convicted IRA member who was jailed for ten years for his part in an armed robbery, denied any knowledge of the gunman, who has disappeared despite police searches on both sides of the open border.

He also denied any overlap between his party and the New IRA, despite the police asserting the two groups are ‘inextricably linked’.

All this comes amid huge controversy in Northern Ireland over whether Brexit threatens the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

One emotive report from Unesco officials claims that violence could explode in as ‘little as six weeks’ following a No Deal Brexit and the subsequent introduction of some kind of border controls.

The open border allowing free movement of people and goods on the island of Ireland was enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement as a means of pacifying those who seek unification.

Now the new groupings of the IRA stand accused of using Brexit as a trumped-up excuse for a return to violence.

This may have more than a kernel of truth.

Residents were evacuated when a suspicious device was found in a house in Creggan Heights, Londonderry, on Monday. It was near to where journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead in April

Residents were evacuated when a suspicious device was found in a house in Creggan Heights, Londonderry, on Monday. It was near to where journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead in April

Last week in an interview on Swedish television, a masked figure holding an assault rifle said he is a member of the Continuing IRA (Cira) and claimed responsibility for both the Craigavon and Fermanagh attacks on police.

In a chilling series of statements, the Cira paramilitary said: ‘These attacks [by IRA volunteers] were in response to the British forces in this country. 

‘The attacks will continue. We have re-grouped, rearmed’.

Asked if Brexit was motivating the attacks, he said: ‘It doesn’t matter what Britain does… We want Britain out of Ireland.

‘The likes of border posts or military checkpoints across the border will give us further opportunity to attack the Crown forces.’

This chimes with the view of DUP politician Gordon Lyons, who warned recently: ‘Some in Northern Ireland still cling to the use of bombs and bullets. 

‘That terrorism pre-dates the EU referendum [of 2016] in the UK.

The object was discovered in a house in the Creggan Heights area of Derry amid searches for bomb-making material, the PSNI confirmed

The object was discovered in a house in the Creggan Heights area of Derry amid searches for bomb-making material, the PSNI confirmed

‘It should not, in any way, be excused on the grounds of whether a deal is in place or not when the UK leaves the EU.’

Others go further.

The DUP’s Jim Wells — who alerted the police to the children chanting ‘we hate the Queen’ in the pub — has said the border issue is ‘Project Fear in overdrive’ and ‘synthetic outrage’ orchestrated by paramilitary groups to win support for violence.

The Unesco report singled out the young of Northern Ireland as a possible threat to peace.

It argued that the so-called ‘Agreement Generation’ have no memory of the events that resulted in the British Army sending in troops in 1969 and staying until the Good Friday Agreement.

Fatefully, said the Unesco report, these ‘horrors of war’ have not been shared by older people with their children.

Instead, the violence of the Troubles has been romanticised, making the younger generation particularly susceptible to being groomed into paramilitary sectarian violence all over again.

A number of uniformed PSNI officers could be seen around the area, and entering and exiting a house in Creggan Heights where the device is believed to have been found

A number of uniformed PSNI officers could be seen around the area, and entering and exiting a house in Creggan Heights where the device is believed to have been found

Can this be true?

It may be. On the streets of Belfast and on its buses are posters paid for by the Northern Ireland authorities.

The signs, with a vivid photo of a teenager’s battered face, warn the young: ‘Paramilitaries don’t protect you. They control you.’

Allison Morris, a journalist on leading paper the Irish News, has sounded a similar warning.

‘Almost every recent arrest for dissident Republican activity has involved people under the age of 40, most in their 20s or 30s, some just teens,’ she says, adding: ‘The fact they are being recruited into militant groups is a… sinister development.’

But while terror is glamorised here, attracting local youngsters, so, too, is the peace.

Last year, 117 cruise ships brought 200,000 visitors to Belfast. This year, more will arrive.

In surreal scenes in Belfast’s centre, shuttle buses from the cruise ships mingle with ordinary buses warning the young about paramilitary terror groups.

The tourists, many also youngsters, are from America, Canada, Japan and China and come to see peace in action.

At THE Europa hotel in Belfast, where the Clintons stayed during the peace agreement talks, guests are invited to book into the suites the power couple based themselves as part of a marketing drive.

Meanwhile, visitors queue to have their photos taken under a huge mural of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died in a Belfast prison in 1981 at the height of the Troubles. 

It is less than half a mile from where the IRA send-off of convicted killer Alex Murphy took place.

Taxi drivers now make a brisk living taking them to see Belfast’s monstrous ‘peace walls’.

Nearly 100 of these ill-named and ugly edifices are erected around Belfast, dividing Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods.

One went up on the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed — and it is still there.

The largest is in Cupar Way in east Belfast. Made of brick, metal and wire and stretching up to 20ft high, it is covered in tourists’ messages of peace and hope.

Yet one wonders how many of these visitors realise that the wall is a symbol not of peace, but of an ongoing and intractable war.

On one side of the construction live Protestant children. On the other — just a few yards away — live young Catholics. 

They may never meet until they are old enough to work, as 93 per cent of state schools and many colleges and universities remain segregated by religion.

By that time, of course, any sectarian attitudes are likely to have hardened.

The sad truth is that the chance of these two groups of children ever becoming friends is remote, threatening further deadly consequences in this divided country.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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