Northern Ireland

Ronan Kerr killing: political taboos being broken

Events in Northern Ireland since the murder of Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr indicate the peace process may be more robust than many had dared to hope.

Image caption Constable Ronan Kerr's family warned against a return to "the dark days"

The brutal killing has led to a series of ground-breaking cross-community moves.

Arguably, the most significant was the decision by Stormont First Minister, Peter Robinson, to agree to attend a Catholic church service for the first time.

For many Protestant politicians, a Catholic Mass is out of bounds. They may express their heartfelt condolences to a grieving family, but don't go to the funeral service.

The argument is that a Roman Catholic Mass contradicts the Protestant faith. It is a dispute that goes back to the 16th Century and the Reformation.

Politics in Northern Ireland is rooted in history, but Mr Robinson's decision to go the funeral of Constable Kerr suggests he is more interested in the present than the past.

Explaining his motives, he said: "It is a personal decision that I have taken. Not everyone will agree with it.

Minute's silence

"But I hope people will understand that when dissidents murder a young man, it is right that the political establishment stands up and makes it very clear that they stand with his family. I believe it's right that I should be there."

He is not the only person to make a stand in the days since Constable Kerr was killed by a bomb outside his Omagh home on Saturday.

The following day, thousands of Gaelic football supporters took part in a minute's silence in memory of him before the match between Tyrone and Kildare in Dungannon.

It used to be that the Gaelic authorities banned police officers from playing their sports.

Image caption Powerful line-up: Standing shoulder-to-shoulder at Stormont

Now, in this new era, the barriers have come down, and Sunday's silence was a vivid illustration of how times have changed.

Constable Kerr's grieving mother, Nuala, spoke of this when she said: "We don't want to go back into the dark days again of fear and terror.

"We were so proud of Ronan and all that he stood for. Don't let his death be in vain."

Another powerful image was the sight of Northern Ireland's chief constable, first minister, deputy first minister and justice minister standing shoulder to shoulder at Stormont condemning the killers of Constable Kerr.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, once an IRA commander, called the dissidents "the enemies of Ireland".

It was also noticeable how Protestant and Catholic church leaders wanted to appear on television together, rather than separately.

One by one, the political taboos in Northern Ireland are being broken.

If someone had suggested 20 years ago that unionists and republicans would be sharing power, Sinn Fein would be supporting the police and that political stability would have broken out, they would have been accused of political insanity.

However, one thing that has not been broken is the cycle of violence. It is not on the same scale as it used to be, but it is posing a real and dangerous threat to life.

The truth is that the cross-community gestures mentioned above will have little impact on hardcore dissidents. They are violent fanatics.

And there are concerns that an experienced IRA figure from east Tyrone may recently have joined them.

The hope is that some of the dissidents' fringe supporters, the people who turn a blind eye rather than report them to the police, will be forced to think again.

The outrage from Irish nationalism - church, state and community - may make them reconsider their stance.

However, the same hopes were expressed two years ago following the murder of a policeman and two soldiers in Northern Ireland, and little changed.

Recent history shows that talking to Irish republicans has more chance of success rather than fighting them.

The problem is that it is not exactly clear who to talk to, and whether it would make any difference.

What is clear is that the dissidents are isolated within Irish nationalism, with the Catholic Church, every Dublin political party and the Gaelic Athletic Association lined up against them.

With no significant support, or any immediate prospect of it, many believe the dissidents are simply killing for killing's sake.