BELFAST // Kathy Davison, a college lecturer, watched with a growing sense of unease and sadness the news that two young soldiers and a police officer were shot dead, in attacks many fear will drag Northern Ireland back to its bloody past. The mother of two teenage girls had left Northern Ireland once before because of the sectarian violence which had turned the British province into a battleground for over 30 years. And now she is thinking of moving away again.
"If this violence continues then I will be heading out of here with my family just as fast as I possibly can. "I am not hanging around in a country where soldiers, police officers and pizza shop workers are gunned down in cold blood on our streets to satisfy some crazed group's warped agenda. "I am not prepared to have my children grow up in a place where violence is always just around the corner and where people are living in fear."
Two young British solders were shot dead on Saturday night as they collected a pizza from a takeaway near their army base north of Belfast. Another two soldiers and two pizza delivery men were wounded in the attack that was claimed by the Real IRA, a splinter group of the main Irish Republican Army which as part of a 1998 peace pact in 2005 agreed to lay down its weapons. Just 48 hours later, a policeman was shot dead as he sat in his car - again by dissident republican gunmen, who have refused to renounce violence as a way to achieve the Republican's stated goal of a united Ireland.
Yesterday, a group with links to the Real IRA, said the violence would continue until Britain relinquished its control of the province. Mrs Davison had returned to Northern Ireland in 2001 after a decade living in South Africa, encouraged by reports from friends and family members back home that the daily tit-for-tat shootings, military check points and general sense of fear had eased. "When I left there were barricades everywhere and it really was a dark, dingy and horrible place to live in. There was no social life and people were frightened of shadows and too scared to talk to other people.
"But when I returned it was a different country where people were eating out all the time, going on two and three holidays a year and seemed to have money to splash around on whatever they desired - I didn't recognise the place it was so different. "Now the violence has raised its ugly head again and I am worried that this could start to spiral out of control. All it takes is for the other side to retaliate with revenge killings and we could soon see us spiral out of control into a country plagued by violence once again."
Throughout Northern Ireland, ordinary people who had been enjoying new found prosperity sparked by a decade of stability, now worry that a fragile peace which was painstakingly won, could rapidly unravel into widespread violence. So far the peace is holding and politicians on all sides have been united in condemning the terror attacks. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, visited the army base where the soldiers were killed on Monday and vowed there would be "no return to the old days".
"What I've seen this morning is the unity of the people of Northern Ireland, and the unity of the political parties who want to send out a message to the world - as I do - that the political process will not and never be shaken. In fact, the political process is now unshakeable." Martin McGuinness, the province's deputy leader and a one-time member of the IRA, called the gunmen "traitors to the island of Ireland".
"They don't deserve the support of anyone," said Mr McGuinness, now a top leader in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. The overwhelming support for the peace process was also evident on Wednesday as thousands of people from across the political and religious divide brought Belfast City Centre to a standstill as they held a silent demonstration for peace. Mark McCormick, 20, a student at Belfast's Queen's University, stood with a banner reading: "Dear Dissidents hear our plea. Please end this killing spree."
"So much work has gone into the peace process that we cannot allow it to be thrown away now," he said. "Nobody wants these killings and I am sick to the stomach that two young soldiers of my age were gunned down like this. "The IRA could not win with the bullet and the bomb and these people won't win either. What happened this week is barbaric, it is a chilling reminder of our past and it has no part to play in our future."
The Real IRA was behind Northern Ireland's deadliest attack, the 1998 Omagh bombing which killed 29 people, mostly women and children. The Continuity IRA, which claimed the killing of the police officer is less known, but analysts suspect the two groups are interlinked. Disaffected republicans have been trying to kill police officers in Northern Ireland since the end of 2007 and on Thursday, police said they feared they would launch another bomb attack.
Yesterday, there were also concerns that the shootings could provoke the tit-for-tat killings between predominantly Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists during the decades of the Troubles. Jackie McDonald, the leader of Northern Ireland's largest paramilitary organisation - the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, which fought against the unification of Ireland - said there would be no retaliation killings.
"The people who did this are not republicans - they are just glorified gangsters trying to buck the whole system. There is no danger of retaliation - things are not going to kick off again - and we will not be drawn back to the violence of the past. "We will have to work together to get through this and everybody just be patient and resolute." David Keenan, 44, a Catholic who lectures in psychology at the same college as his Protestant friend, Kathy Davison, also left Northern Ireland to escape the Troubles.
He grew up in Belfast's Falls Road at the height of the Troubles and left Northern Ireland to begin a new life in the US in 1984 when he was 19. He returned home in 1998, right at the start of the peace process, and is horrified at the return to violence. "I am a product of the Troubles and I remember growing up with internment, shootings and people I knew being killed. "When I was nine I was caught up in a rocket attack when the device shot past me and left me with burns on my face - I was that close to being killed.
"It is utter madness that there are people who want us to return to that kind of life. When I heard of these latest killings I went through disbelief, disgust and despair but the united front which has been shown by our politicians, church leaders and from ordinary people from all walks of life has given me hope." "The people of Northern Ireland have suffered enough, this nightmare must come to an end."
For a new generation of young adults who have never experienced the Troubles, the shootings were a terrifying illustration of what they had learnt in school. "My mum used to tell me stories about police checkpoints but I have never seen one and we learnt about the violence at school," said Ruth Jackson, 20, who is studying design at the University of Ulster. "I don't think of there being separate communities here and I have been brought up to treat everybody with respect. If you have respect for people it does not matter what religion you are or what background you come from and nobody I know wants any more bloodshed on our streets."
* The National