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Thousands in Northern Ireland attend peace vigils after horrific murders

By Noel McAdam

Thousands of Northern Ireland people today displayed a united front as they stood in silent protest against the sudden resurgence in terrorist violence.

After the deaths of three security force members in three days, trade union members and others were gathering in Belfast, Londonderry, Lisburn, Newry, Downpatrick and other centres to show their anger and disgust.

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Their collective silence sent out a clear “get off our backs” message to republican splinter groups and other paramilitaries.

Almost all the rallies, reminiscent of the Peace People demonstrations from the 1970s, were organised by the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to face down the terrorists’ “agenda of sectarianism”.

They were designed to maintain the unity of purpose characteristic of the response since the Real IRA’s pizza delivery killing of two soldiers on Saturday and the Continuity IRA murder of the first PSNI officer to be killed, Stephen Carroll.

Even as the province came together in condemnation, police in Fermanagh were investigating reports that a shot was fired in the Drumeer Road area of Maguiresbridge last night.

As a peace vigil was also due to be held near the site of the Craigavon killing, it also emerged floral tributes left at the scene of Constable Carroll’s murder were destroyed during minor trouble last night.

Several youths set fire to wheelie bins just after 9pm and uprooted flowers left by shocked residents and devastated colleagues of the officer shot dead as he responded to a call to the Lismore Manor estate on Monday.

Independent councillor Kieran Corr said those responsible displayed disrespect. “What they have done is not what the people here think. The fact these flowers were left here as a mark of respect, they should have respected that,” he added.

Murdered in Northern Ireland: Constable Stephen Carroll (centre) and sappers Mark Quinsey (left) and Patrick Azimkar (right)

Above: Mark Quinsey, Stephen Carroll and Patrick Azimkar

Trouble in the adjacent Ardowen estate broke out after the arrests of two men — one 17 and the other 37 — in connection with police officer Carroll’s murder.

The Pope today denounced the murders as “abominable attacks of terrorism” that endanger the political process aimed at achieving peace and justice.

He was addressing pilgrims in St Peter’s Square and called for increased efforts at dialogue to build a society that is peaceful, just and reconciled.

Ahead of the mass shows of rejection, Peter Bunting, assistant general secretary of the ICTU, said workers must unite to ensure the peace process “was not derailed”.

“This show of strength from civil society will send a clear message to the killers, who do not deserve the monopoly of the word ‘dissident’,” he said.

“The word is too good for them. They are delinquents. A clear message will also go to the outside world. They [the paramilitaries] must be faced down with a massive display of the unity of the people of Northern Ireland. We are determined not to be assigned into tight sectarian boxes,” said Mr Bunting.

The rallies were also being supported by the Ulster Farmers Union, NI Council for Voluntary Action and the Confederation of British Industry, as well as the main churches and migrant community organisations.

And in Dublin, a Dail motion agreed by all the parties welcomed the ICTU rallies “to enable people to express their grief and anger at these murders, recognising that this is in the best traditions of the non-sectarian trade union movement in Northern Ireland”.

The lunchtime gatherings also picked up on the theme of solidarity established by the political parties in the Assembly — where MLAs stood in silent tribute to the slain Army and police officers — and the First and Deputy First Minister.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness again met with the leaders of all the parties following their security briefing by PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, and also with the leaders of the four main churches at Stormont Castle.

The DUP leader and his Sinn Fein partner in government were today finally flying out to the United States, four days late, but encouraged by the fact that the politicians and civic society have been galvanised by the atrocities.

They flew out together from Heathrow mid-morning, after twice postponing the trip, en route to Los Angeles, with officials working to revamp their schedules.

Mr Robinson said: “I am glad that every party in the Assembly is solidly in support of the Chief Constable, is solidly of the view that we should not turn back from that which we have put our hand to: that’s the kind of unity that can defeat anybody.”

And Mr McGuinness underpinned the show of unity by saying: “We are going to remain united in our approach and ultimately we will prevail.”

Boosted by the common front adopted in two separate emergency Assembly debates on Monday and Tuesday, the two top Ministers were expected to emphasise the need for investment to bolster the power-sharing administration.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who spoke by telephone to Gordon Brown last night to review the security situation on both sides of the border, was expected to lead a debate in the Dail on a motion condemning the murders.

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