Former NI foes grieve at policeman's funeral

BANBRIDGE, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - Northern Ireland’s former foes joined mourners on Friday at the funeral of a policeman killed by dissident republicans this week, in a symbol of unity across the sectarian divide.

The cap of Northern Ireland Police Constable Stephen Carroll is seen on top of his coffin as it is carried into St Therese's Catholic church in Banbridge, Northern Ireland, March 13, 2009. REUTERS/Darren Staples

A splinter group opposed to the peace process warned there would be no end to violence in the province while it remained under British control.

The Real IRA shot dead two soldiers on Saturday in the deadliest act of violence in Northern Ireland in over a decade. Two days later another splinter group, the Continuity IRA, killed police officer Stephen Carroll.

A lone bagpiper led hundreds of mourners to the Catholic church where Carroll was buried in his home town of Banbridge, 24 miles (40 km) south of Belfast.

“Our prayer today is that Stephen’s horrendous killing will galvanise us in our pursuit of mutual understanding, tolerance and respect for one another,” Canon Liam Stevenson said after mass.

Later, a man in his 20s was arrested, the third person to be arrested in connection with Carroll’s murder.

The shootings shattered the relative calm created by a 1998 peace deal which ended 30 years of violence between the IRA and Protestant groups.

Mourners included members of IRA ally Sinn Fein -- the first time Northern Ireland’s main nationalist party had sent members to the funeral of an officer killed in sectarian violence.

“I do hope this is the last funeral I will ever attend as a result of this conflict,” said Sinn Fein politician Alex Maskey.

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Protestant leaders sat side by side with their Catholic counterparts. Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern also attended.

“We’re 100 percent behind the peace process, we’re not going to be put off by the actions of a few dissident republicans, so-called republicans,” said Jackie McDonald, a former loyalist prisoner and alleged senior member of the Ulster Defence Association.


Sinn Fein, which seeks a united Ireland by peaceful means, agreed to share power in 2007 in a provincial government with the Democratic Unionist Party, cementing the 1998 deal.

This week, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, an IRA commander in the 1970s, slammed the dissidents as “traitors” -- one of the worst insults in nationalist quarters -- as he tried to shore up the peace process and reassure Protestant partners.

A small group widely believed to be a political ally of the Real IRA said violence would continue as long the six counties of Northern Ireland remained separate from the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland.

“If the conflict in Ireland is to end once and for all, so too must the illegal British claim to sovereignty over the six counties,” The 32 County Sovereignty Movement said in an emailed statement seen by Reuters on Friday.

“We seek peace, but we recognise clearly that this can only be achieved if true parity is brought to the negotiating process,” the statement said.

The 32 County Sovereignty Movement, which rejected the 1998 peace deal as a British trap, criticised Sinn Fein’s denunciation of its old allies.

“This British strategy has now reached its pinnacle with a Provisional Sinn Fein leader standing at Stormont (the power- sharing assembly), under the British flag, as a minister of the British crown, calling IRA volunteers ‘traitors’ for continuing to resist British occupation,” it said.

Sinn Fein has said splinter groups have little support in the wider republican community but it risks losing the backing of hardliners.

McDonald said Sinn Fein’s stance this week was “very brave” and had helped reassure loyalists in the province.

“It is about those who support the peace process against those who are trying to bring it down,” he said.

Writing by Jonathan Saul, reporting by Carmel Crimmins and Andras Gergely; editing by Tim Pearce