ANTRIM, Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant congregations prayed together for peace Sunday after IRA dissidents killed two British soldiers as they collected pizzas – the first deadly attack on Northern Ireland security forces in 12 years.
The leaders of the territory’s Catholic-Protestant administration warned that Irish Republican Army dissidents were trying to tear apart their young coalition and drag Northern Ireland back toward its bloody past. The leaders postponed a U.S. trip to deal with the crisis but expect to meet with President Barack Obama on St. Patrick’s Day as planned.
Police said two dissidents with assault rifles opened fire Saturday night from a car as four soldiers – who were just hours away from being deployed to Afghanistan – met two Domino’s Pizza delivery men at the entrance of the Massereene army barracks in Antrim, west of Belfast.
All four were wounded, two fatally. Also shot were the two delivery men, a local teenager who was seriously wounded and a 32-year-old Polish immigrant left in critical condition.
An Irish newspaper, the Sunday Tribune, said it received a claim of responsibility in a phone call from the Real IRA splinter group. The newspaper said the caller, who used a code word to verify he was authorized to speak for the outlawed gang, defended the shooting and described the pizza delivery men as “collaborators of British rule in Ireland.”
The Real IRA was responsible for the deadliest terror attack in Northern Ireland history: a 1998 car bombing of the town of Omagh that killed 29 people, mostly women and children.
The senior Catholic in the power-sharing coalition, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, said dissidents were trying to rekindle sectarian bloodshed and force Britain to resume sterner security policies. McGuinness, a former IRA commander, called the violence “absolutely futile.”
The IRA killed nearly 1,800 people from 1970 to 1997 in a failed effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland. The IRA disarmed and renounced violence in 2005, but several shadowy splinter groups have tried to continue the campaign.
Both McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson, the Protestant leader of the 22-month-old coalition, vowed that the attack would not weaken power-sharing, the central accomplishment of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord in 1998.
Robinson and McGuinness postponed a U.S. trip, canceling meetings scheduled to start today with several American businesses operating in Northern Ireland. But they still expect to visit Obama at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, when Northern Ireland leaders traditionally seek American political and economic support.
Robinson urged Protestant extremists not to retaliate against the Catholic community. Two outlawed Protestant groups, the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, claim to have renounced violence but have refused to disarm – because they reserve the right to seek revenge for dissident IRA acts.
“Can I urge all of those who may be angry within the (pro-British) unionist community – this is a matter to be left entirely with the police and the authorities,” Robinson said.
Catholic and Protestant congregations in Antrim walked at midday from their churches to the scene of the killing, where police forensic specialists were still searching the ground for bullet fragments.
Ministers from the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches took turns praying for the dead and wounded, for the IRA dissidents to give up, and for their often-bickering leaders to stay on a path to reconciliation. The crowd reached several hundred.