LONDON — Police have warned that armed dissident groups are planning violent attacks over the Easter holiday weekend as Northern Ireland marks 25 years since the peace accord that ended three decades of bloodshed.
U.S. President Joe Biden is due to visit Belfast next week as Northern Ireland commemorates the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. The U.S.-brokered deal got Irish republican and British loyalist paramilitary groups to lay down their arms and setup a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland.
The peace accord largely ended 30 years of violence, known as “the Troubles,” in which 3,600 people died, but small splinter groups mount occasional gun or bomb attacks on the security forces.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton said police had received intelligence about planned violence around a parade in Londonderry on Easter Monday commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland.
He said there was “potential for dissidents to try and draw us in to disorder and then experience tells us where that happens, that can quite often become the platform for an attack on our officers.”
The threat from dissidents prompted U.K. authorities last month to raise Northern Ireland’s terrorism threat level to “severe,” meaning an attack is considered highly likely. In February, a senior police officer, John Caldwell, was shot and seriously wounded by two masked men as he coached a children’s soccer team in the town of Omagh, about 60 miles (nearly 100 kilometers) west of Belfast.
Police Chief Constable Simon Byrne said police officers, military personnel and prison staff, and their families, were the dissidents’ main targets.
“The style of attack that we are dealing with and trying to frustrate is gun attacks and bomb attacks on these people by a small number of determined dissident terrorists,” he said Thursday.
While the peace forged by the Good Friday Agreement has largely held, the political structures have been through multiple crises. The Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat for more than a year, after the main unionist party pulled out of the government to protest new post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.
Key players in the talks that led to the peace accord gathered at Stormont, the seat of the mothballed assembly, on Friday for a ceremony to mark the anniversary.
Gerry Adams, former leader of the IRA-linked party Sinn Fein, said the 1988 agreement had saved “countless” lives.
“We’re all in a better place and despite current challenges, the future is bright,” Adams said.
Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey, who also attended the ceremony, said young people in Northern Ireland now “are the second generation that has grown up in this country who have no working knowledge of what violence and our Troubles meant.”
“If there’s nothing else it has achieved, that in itself is a victory,” Empey said.
Under the terms of the agreement, people jailed for taking part in the violence were released, an issue that still pains families of those who were killed.
A group of relatives of Troubles victims held a sunrise ceremony Friday on a beach in County Down, south of Belfast, to reflect on the conflict and the peace.
“It was incredible being here with all these people, Catholic and Protestant, unionist and nationalist, republican and loyalist — we have all lost people,” said Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law were killed by an IRA bomb in Belfast in 1993. “To look out at the sea and see the sun come up, that is the vision of the Good Friday Agreement, people standing together.”
Later Friday, residents from Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist neighborhoods planned to hold a ceremony at a gate in one of the fortified “peace walls” that still divide Belfast.