Fears for peace as Catholic is killed

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The Independent Online
THE SECTARIAN killing of a Catholic man in north Belfast in the early hours of Saturday morning has sent a tremor of concern and worry through those involved in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Initial fears that the ceasefires maintained by the major loyalist paramilitary groups had collapsed appeared later to be groundless. But the killing has inevitably increased tensions in a peace process already mired in the arms decommissioning controversy.

The man killed was Brian Service, a 35-year-old construction worker who was walking home after a night out when he was approached by a gunman in the Ardoyne area. He died after being shot several times in the head and back.

The area where he died, Alliance Avenue, was one of Belfast's murder blackspots throughout the Troubles, and the news of the shooting instantly triggered visions of a return to the bad old days.

Responsibility for the killing was later claimed by the "Red Hand Defenders", an almost unknown group. Earlier this month the organisation said it had carried out a blast bomb attack which killed a police officer at Portadown, Co Armagh. It also admitted responsibility for attacks on Catholic businesses and churches.

It is assumed to be a militant breakaway from some of the larger groups, possibly the Ulster Volunteer Force or Loyalist Volunteer Force, which have declared ceasefires.

Given that Mr Service was clearly chosen as a target solely on the basis of his religion, the group appears to have no philosophy beyond primitively straightforward sectarianism. While the group is presumably tiny the concern is that its violence might spark off a chain reaction which could threaten the peace process.

Whatever the political repercussions, another family has been left distraught and bereaved at a time when many hoped that such violence was becoming a thing of the past. The parish priest, Father Kenneth Brady, said of Mr Service's family: "They're in deep shock. They find it very hard to take things in. They don't want any retaliation from any source and they say the peace talks, the peace process, must work so that no one else will be left to grieve as they are."

Mr Service was a single man with no paramilitary or criminal connections. A cousin said of him: "Brian was just a very quiet, harmless man who enjoyed a bit of crack and lived for his family."

Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein said: "This is a very dangerous time indeed and we are calling on all the political parties to recognise the potential that an incident like this has to return us to the horrors of the past."

First Minister David Trimble and his deputy, Seamus Mallon, said in a joint statement: "We utterly condemn this cynical and dastardly murder and our thoughts are very much with Brian's family and relatives.

"If this murder is designed to derail the peace process it will fail. There must be no succour given to these murderers. We must not let their evil desire for sectarian slaughter to materialise."