Tragic But Not Troubled: The Murder of a Northern Irish Policeman

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This afternoon a 25-year-old policeman was murdered by dissident Republicans in Northern Ireland. That news, horrific though it is, might seem unremarkable. After all, Ulster was—until really quite recently—a byword for terrorist violence. Only this morning, I laughed with pleasure to see a friend’s tweet. “Lovely lie in for 1st time in ages…God bless Belfast!!” she wrote. “Came here for some peace and calm, couldn’t say that in the 70s.”

Frankly you couldn’t say that in the 80s or 90s either. It’s only since 1998 that the peace process moved into a new phase, no longer a distant dream but an emerging reality. Two key moments occurred in that year: the establishment of Northern Ireland’s devolved legislature through the Good Friday Agreement and a bombing that killed 29 people and injured hundreds in the town of Omagh. That indiscriminate act of brutality helped to harden opinions against extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide who claimed to represent the interests of ordinary people; the vast majority of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland made clear in their communities and at polls that they wanted no truck with terror, no such acts in their name.

No organization has yet claimed responsibility for today’s killing, which also took place in Omagh. Its victim has been named as 25-year-old Ronan Kerr, blown up as he started his car to drive to work. A Catholic, he was employed as a policeman, a job once almost entirely performed by Protestants. His killers will have been Catholics too, members of one of the groups that splintered from the Provisional IRA years ago.

His death is tragic and in some ways all the more so because of its context, victim of a war that is effectively over but for a few hundred extremists who refuse to give up for ideological reasons or often because terror is allied to profitable smuggling and extortion operations. On May 5, Northern Ireland goes to the polls to elect a new Assembly. Not everyone will be happy with the results, but that’s democracy. And that’s what shapes Northern Ireland these days, ballots not bombs.