ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron is gambling that the remnants of the Irish Republican Army are too weak to trouble the world’s most powerful leaders when they meet five miles from the scene of one of the worst killings in Northern Ireland’s recent history.
Cameron’s government has chosen a secluded lakeside hotel near Enniskillen to host U.S. President Barack Obama and his Group of Eight colleagues at a summit next week, banking on its remote location to deter anti-globalists, Islamists and any other potential trouble-makers.
In doing so, he is running a calculated risk that Irish militants, who do not accept the IRA’s 1998 peace agreement with Britain, will be unable to trouble Northern Ireland’s experienced security forces.
“In some ways it’s more manageable. In some ways it’s more of a gamble,” said John Bew, a security expert at King’s College London. “It’s a golden opportunity (for the dissidents) in terrain they know very well.”
Enniskillen, like Northern Ireland, has been transformed since an IRA bomb tore through a crowd of mainly Protestant Unionists laying wreaths to Britain’s war dead in 1987, killing 11 and wounding 63.
The civilian deaths rocked support among Irish Catholics for the IRA and its bid to force Britain to withdraw from Northern Ireland and pushed its leaders towards dialogue with Unionists, which lead to a ceasefire and the peace deal.
Today tourists from a newly opened cross-border canal wander streets once patrolled by heavily armed British Army soldiers.
“Fermanagh Welcomes You” signs have replaced machine gun turrets that stood sentry on the Irish border, which surrounds the town on three sides.
‘SAFER THAN UK’
“There’s no way they could have done this 20 years ago. But today it (Northern Ireland) is safer than the rest of the UK,” said Colin Whyte, a 43-year-old builder, walking past the site of the bomb which injured several of his relatives.
But fears that a network of a few hundred militant Irish nationalists could target the town once again were realised in March when bomb disposal experts defused a device containing 60 kilograms of homemade explosive.
The groups, one of which has reclaimed the name Irish Republican Army, have a much lower level of technical sophistication and support in the community than the Provisional IRA, which had around 1,500 active members at its peak.
Northern Ireland police last year said the threat from the dissidents is at its highest level since the ceasefire with a threat level of “severe” compared to the lower “substantial” level for international terrorism.
Justice Minister David Ford said last month it would be foolish not to plan for the potential of significant trouble and police have made a number of arrests of people in recent weeks and on Monday seized a cache of weapons.
Ireland is to put 900 police on duty, setting up eight checkpoints to seal the border and the government recently approved new rules to allow the blockage of phone signals in case of emergency.
Security analysts said the dissidents would be unlikely to attack the venue itself, which has been secured with a 7 km fence and police monitoring roads for miles around.
Instead they may repeat attempts in recent months to detonate a car bomb elsewhere in northern Ireland, attack a police station with mortar bombs or target one of the 3,600 officers being brought from Britain to help protect the event.
“You can’t say 100 percent that something will happen, but if you look at it through their warped thinking, you would assume that is what they are planning,” said Peter Shirlow, an expert in Republican violence at Queen’s University in Belfast.
“They have so little support that the only way they can get recognition is by creating a media event. That’s why they are so dangerous.”
But by hosting the leaders in Northern Ireland, they are keeping them far from the anti-globalist activists that have dominated past G8 meetings.
And eight years after the July 7, 2005, attacks in London during the last G8 in the United Kingdom, the summit will take place in a region with one of the smallest Muslim populations in the country.
The fear that Northern Ireland police might use force against protesters combined with the logistical difficulties of reaching a rural location with no major airport nearby has discouraged many anti-capitalists from travelling, said Chris Bay, 26, a member of the Socialist Youth Front of Denmark.
“Most of people I speak with across Europe are not going,” said Bay, who is travelling but is worried about being turned back at one of three border checkpoints he has to cross.
Protest organisers admit rallies will be much smaller than other years. One of them, Daniel Waldron, 27, said he is hoping to get thousands of people to attend.
On the small country road that leads to the hotel through rolling green hills there is little sign of the huge security operation police are undertaking across the province other than a wire fence and a small police checkpoint.
Raymond McKenzie, who runs an architectural salvage business yards from the security fence, said locals were sanguine about the threat of violence and were determined to make the most of their window on the world stage.
“In the circumstances of a recession, it should be more a plus than a minus,” he said. “I‘m intending to set up a burger joint for the protesters and I’ll stick up two white flags for peace.”
Additional reporting by Maurice Neill and Costas Pistas; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan