Image: Residents of Northern Ireland gather in Belfast for a peace vigil
Peter Muhly  /  AFP - Getty Images
Residents of Northern Ireland gather in Belfast on Wednesday for a peace vigil to protest the killings of a policeman and two soldiers by Republican dissidents. Rallies were held across the province in Belfast, Lisburn, Newry, Downpatrick and Londonderry.
updated 3/11/2009 11:46:06 AM ET 2009-03-11T15:46:06

Several thousand Catholics and Protestants united in a silent protest Wednesday against the Irish Republican Army dissidents who have put Northern Ireland on edge — and its peace in doubt — with deadly attacks that have left three dead since the weekend.

More than 2,000 people gathered at lunchtime in front of Belfast City Hall to register their protest against Northern Ireland's worst dissident IRA violence in a decade. Thousands more gathered in at least three other cities, including predominantly Catholic Londonderry and Newry, where dissidents have been active.

"No going back," read placards at all the protests. As a lone bagpiper played a lament, the Belfast crowd — among them firefighters and postal workers, former paramilitary convicts and child-cradling mothers — fell stone-silent for five minutes.

Some openly wept while others shook hands and offered condolences to police officers over the latest fatality, a 23-year police veteran shot through the back of the head Monday.

Many said afterward they wished they could do more to ensure that Northern Ireland's next generation never experiences what they endured through four decades of conflict that left 3,700 dead.

"I'm a Catholic. I grew up in an area where the police were the enemy. Now things have changed so completely for the better," said Aidan Kane, a paramedic who came to the rally with his 6-year-old boy on his shoulders. "If my wee lad here wants to be a policeman when he grows up, I'd be proud. I shouldn't have to worry that some nut might shoot him for serving his community."

Patricia McKeown, president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, chief organizer of Wednesday's protests, said she hoped the silence of the crowds would "be a silence that thunders around the world."

'End this madness'
"End this madness," urged a front-page editorial in the Belfast Telegraph alongside photographs of the three slain men: 48-year-old police Constable Stephen Carroll and two soldiers in the British Army's Royal Engineers: Cengiz "Patrick" Azimkar, 21, and Mark Quinsey, 23.

The Continuity IRA fatally shot Carroll as he sat in a patrol car Monday night. Another splinter group, the Real IRA, gunned down the two army engineers, and wounded two other soldiers and two pizza delivery men, on Saturday night as Afghanistan-bound troops collected a final meal at their base's entrance.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said the dissident IRA violence could "seriously endanger the political process under way in Northern Ireland and risk extinguishing so many hopes raised by it in the region and in the entire world."

"I pray to the Lord, so that no one allows themselves to be again won over by the horrendous temptation of violence," the pope said.

The British Protestant and Irish Catholic leaders of Northern Ireland's 22-month-old power-sharing government departed Wednesday for the U.S. to seek increased American support for the peace process.

Because of the killings, the leaders twice had canceled the start of their U.S. visit, which seeks to defend and promote U.S. business investment in their land of 1.7 million people.

As they left Wednesday, aides to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness conceded that their trip now was likely to attract much greater U.S. attention — but for all the wrong reasons, amid worries that Northern Ireland could be sliding back into a conflict long kept at bay by the Good Friday peace accord of 1998.

Uniting former enemies
But the recent killings have already had the effect of bonding Robinson, long a bitter Protestant opponent of the IRA, and McGuinness, a longtime IRA commander, more closely together than ever before. They rarely appeared in public together before Tuesday, when they stood shoulder to shoulder with Northern Ireland police chief Hugh Orde and appealed for citizens shielding the IRA dissidents in their communities to identify them to police.

"In Northern Ireland today we are seeing a degree of unity among the political parties that some people thought they would never see in their lifetimes," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told lawmakers in the House of Commons.

Police raided homes Tuesday in a Catholic district of Craigavon, southwest of Belfast, near the spot where Carroll was killed, and arrested a 17-year-old boy and 37-year-old man on suspicion of involvement in the policeman's murder. Both were being questioned Wednesday at the police's main interrogation center in Antrim, the town west of Belfast where Saturday's Real IRA attack took place.

More on Northern Ireland  

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