Ulster stands united in silent appeal for peace

Thousands join lunchtime vigils to remember three latest victims of terror
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The Independent Online

They came in their thousands to stand in silence. A homage to the members of the security forces whose murders have threatened to push Northern Ireland back to the dark days of violence.

It was also, said many of those who attended, a public statement that a community which has been so fractured in the past by communal strife now stands united against the men with the guns and the bombs. The gains made in the years of peace must not be allowed to be squandered.

The gatherings took place in Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Downpatrick, and Lisburn, and in Craigavon where Constable Stephen Carroll was murdered, the third member of the security forces to die in three days.

There was also a vigil, in solidarity, by MPs outside Westminster and support from the Prime Minister. And, addressing pilgrims at St Peter's Square the Pope denounced the killings as "abominable attacks of terrorism" which were threatening the political process "aimed at achieving justice and peace".

The crowds gathered outside Belfast City Hall observed a minute's silence in memory of the security forces killed in separate attacks by dissident republicans. After a piper played "Abide With Me", the trade union leader John Corey told the rally that the public rejected any return of violence. "The trade union movement has always stood for peace," he said. "For this movement, no political cause in Northern Ireland justifies violence of any kind."

He said the Irish Congress of Trades Unions and the wider community stood shoulder-to-shoulder with political leaders at Stormont who had presented a united front against the gunmen. He added: "So we show the world that is now watching, that the people of Northern Ireland absolutely and totally reject those that carried out those brutal crimes against humanity."

The same message was delivered by Gordon Brown in the House of Commons and by the Taoiseach Brian Cowen in Dublin. Mr Brown told MPs: "The peace marches today on the streets of Northern Ireland show what I saw in Northern Ireland on Monday and what we are seeing right across the country.

"The unity against violence of the people and their representatives; the defiance and the determination to stand up to the evil and criminal violence; and the unyielding resolution to say with one voice that the peace that the people of Northern Ireland are building no murderers should ever be allowed to destroy."

Mr Cowen told the Dail: "Those institutions are being challenged by a tiny and unrepresentative group of evil people who have no mandate and no support for their actions. Their actions are futile. They cannot succeed and they will not succeed."

In Belfast, Susan Francis, 54, had taken along her six-year-old grandson Matthew to the rally. "I don't want this wee boy to grow up in the kind of society we had in the past, where people's lives were ruined by pointless fighting," she said. "But my fear is that these violent men are determined and they will drag us back. A lot of people fear that."

Ann Robb came from Portadown to lay a bouquet of spring flowers where PC Carroll had fallen. Then she quietly recalled her own loss, that of her 19-year-old son Andrew and his friend David Robb, also 19, who were found dead on a roadside from beatings and stabbings – casualties, it is believed, of a feud between two Protestant groups, the UVF and the LVF.

In Portadown, there was no protest – although that was a good sign, as the annual Drumcree march through the town had been one of the controversial flashpoints during the time of sectarian strife. Moreen Stephenson, who runs guest houses in the area, said: "When I heard about the killings I thought 'oh no, here we go again'. That was the feeling of most people around here. This vigil [in Belfast] is very important – it shows how ordinary people feel."

At the town centre, however, the mood among some was sombre. "We have stopped the attempt to follow our lawful route on the march in the interest of peace," said Robert Wilson. "But 10 years on you still have these republican terrorists attacking our soldiers and policemen. People are losing patience, and if this continues I fear there will be retaliation."

Comments: From the Belfast Telegraph blog

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Just been at [the] silent protest at city hall. It was good to see so many turn up. The only thing these cowardly killers have done is unite all sections of the community, and reaffirm our desire to move forward in a peaceful manner without the days of old. I say turn our backs on these cowards and show them they cannot deviate us, stand up and say no to their terror. Once we may have been afraid, but not any more.

Ann Boal

To Constable Connor's family: I know what you are going through. I am from a proud police background, my own father was injured in a booby trap bomb in 1981 which killed a young officer of 23. I thought the days of police funerals were past and here we are again. God Bless you, be proud.

Barry Joyce

Whether the victim is a soldier, policeman, or civilian. Whether they are Catholic, Protestant, republican or loyalist, this atrocity brings shame to the whole island. All of us, north and south, should stand together in condemning these outrages, and bringing the perpetrators to justice. There should be no place for those who would use terror and fear to obtain their ends.