'Antrim had become a safe and happy place to call home'

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They came from every corner of the town, an impromptu act of solidarity in the face of unspeakable evil.

From St Comgall's Roman Catholic chapel only yards from the murder scene, from First Antrim Presbyterian church on the High Street, from the Methodist church and Church of Ireland too. Cutting short their Sunday morning services, hundreds of churchgoers of every denomination walked silently to the edge of the police cordon and stood together amid the floral tributes.

Against the icy winds they bowed their heads and prayed. "Everyone will hug each other a little tighter tonight after this," Fr Tony Devlin told the crowd. "We don't want to go back to this. Nobody wants to go back to this in any way at all. We don't want those years of the past, they were horrible years for everyone. In our churches today, many people were crying because of the experiences they remembered from the past. They do not want it to come back again."

The sense of shock in the close-knit county town was palpable. While the threat posed by dissident republicans was clear, most of their activities to date had been focused on the border areas. At 16 miles north-west of Belfast, the people of Antrim never thought such an outrage would visit them.

"Antrim has become a very safe and happy place for people to live," Fr Devlin told the on-street congregation. "In many ways it was probably because it was such an easy and safe place for people to travel about, especially the military personnel, it's probably because of that it was such an easy target."

As morning broke, people arrived to pay their respects. One sympathy card summed up the sentiments: "Words can't express my sorrow and the sickness I feel at how these people who call themselves human can murder in cold blood innocent people doing a day's work." Another was even more pointed: "Real men who carry guns wear a uniform and stand in a line. Cowards do not."

Attending the service was the regimental chaplain from Massereene barracks, the Rev Philip McCormack. The troops, he said, were bearing the loss the only way they knew how – as soldiers. "They spent weeks and months preparing [for Afghanistan] and so anything like this will obviously have a profound impact. But they are very professional and we will mourn and deal with this and then we will do our job."