Sir Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, warned last November of an "appalling competition" between dissident republican groups to kill a member of the security forces. That warning now looks to have been vindicated.
The murder of two soldiers at the gates of their Antrim barracks on Saturday by the Real IRA, followed by the shooting of a police officer on Monday in Craigavon by the Continuity IRA, does seem to suggest some sort of twisted competition between these groups.
But whatever lies behind the timing of these attacks, the second act of political violence in three days has left many people in Northern Ireland terrified that they are slipping back towards the black days of "the Troubles". Yet the hope they can cling to amid the trepidation is that, so far, political co-operation across the sectarian divide seems to be holding.
In the past, rival political leaders from the nationalist and loyalist communities would savage each other in the wake of an outrage such as the murder of a police officer. Not this time. The Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson and the Sinn Fein deputy first leader, Martin McGuinness, stood on either side of Sir Hugh yesterday in an impressive demonstration of unity outside the Stormont Assembly.
"The stronger we stand together," said Mr Robinson, "the more surely we will come through this together." The condemnation from the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, of Saturday's killing of sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar was less forceful than it ought to have been. But the party's response to the murder of Constable Stephen Paul Carroll yesterday was much stronger. Mr McGuinness called the perpetrators "traitors to the island of Ireland".
Of course, such words will have little impact on the murderous ambitions of the hardcore terrorists behind these attacks. From their twisted perspective, these killings are a means to get the pot of sectarian discord boiling. And despite their professed goal of pushing the British Army from Northern Ireland for good, these renegade organisations actually want nothing more than troops to return to the streets of Ulster.
Sir Hugh shut the door on such a prospect yesterday saying he had "no intention" of bringing the military back into routine policing. He is the best judge of the appropriate response to these murders. But the Chief Constable must be given whatever resources from London he needs to bring these killers to justice and restore security across the province. A heavy burden lies on his shoulders.
A wider question has been posed by these killings too. Everyone agrees that Northern Ireland has made huge political progress since the Good Friday Agreement. But what impact has the peace process had on daily life in the province? Have sectarian divides been bridged?
Some will draw the lesson from these killings that Ulster's divisions, below the surface, remain as untractable as ever. Yet this is too pessimistic. It is true that segregation in housing and education remains. But the tension between communities has come down dramatically in the past decade. The peace has improved life for all who live in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, it is this easing of community relations that fanatical republican groups hope to reverse. They feed on polarisation. The response of the moderate majority should be to refuse to play into their hands. These murderers must not be allowed to jeopardise the peace that the people of Northern Ireland have bravely, and collectively, built.Reuse content