Slain NIreland officer buried, arms cache found

AP News
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Posted: Apr 06, 2011 1:13 PM
Slain NIreland officer buried, arms cache found

As the casket of a slain Catholic policeman was somberly hoisted through his town, Northern Ireland police investigating his killing announced a major weapons cache seizure and arrested a suspected Irish Republican Army dissident.

Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris revealed the breakthrough Wednesday as scenes of exceptional Catholic-Protestant unity, especially between Northern Ireland's politicians, played out at the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr.

The 25-year-old new recruit was killed Saturday by a booby-trap bomb under his car in the town of Omagh _ the first killing of a member of Northern Ireland's security forces in two years. The dissidents responsible mount such attacks in hopes of intimidating members of the Irish Catholic minority from joining the Northern Ireland police, a formerly Protestant-dominated force that today is 30 percent Catholic.

Harris said the 100-strong detective team investigating the Kerr killing used intelligence tipoffs to discover the weapons dump Tuesday night in Coalisland, a traditional IRA power base in County Tyrone in central Northern Ireland. He said detectives arrested a 26-year-old man Wednesday in Scotland suspected of links to the arsenal.

The weaponry, the biggest find of paramilitary arms in Northern Ireland for several years, was hidden in several stolen cars in a locked-up garage. Harris said police seized plastic explosives _ including suspected Semtex, several tons of which Libya supplied to the IRA in the mid-1980s _ detonators, timer-power units for homemade bombs, parts for armor-piercing rockets, and four Kalashnikov assault rifles with ammunition.

Harris said police forensic specialists were already analyzing the seized weapons for potential DNA links to specific IRA dissidents and ballistic links to particular attacks.

He said the weapons might offer insight "into Ronan's murder and into terrorist activity generally in that area." But he said it was too early to say if police suspected any link between Kerr's killing and the man arrested in Scotland.

In Beragh, a County Tyrone village of about 500 residents lying between Coalisland and Omagh, church and government leaders from across Ireland joined mourners and the Kerr family for the officer's funeral Mass.

The Protestant leader of the Northern Ireland government, Peter Robinson, had never before attended a Catholic service. The Catholic deputy leader, former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, had never before attended a police officer's funeral. They walked together into the church in a scene that, despite their three years in office together, still sent a chill of disbelief down the spine.

More than 1,000 locals lined the sidewalks as the casket _ bearing the officer's cap and leather gloves _ was carried down the village's main street to the church with its slowly tolling bell.

In a measure of how far reconciliation has come in Northern Ireland, the pallbearers alternated between police officers in dark green uniforms and members of Ireland's Gaelic Athletic Association.

A decade ago, police would have walked down the main street of the predominantly Catholic Beragh only in flak jackets and with a British Army guard. The GAA, a traditionally anti-British guardian of Ireland's native sports, was still banning police from joining its clubs.

Outside Beragh's Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beragh, Kerr's family demonstrated remarkable poise as they greeted a cavalcade of Ireland's leadership: the heads of the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches; the commanders of the police forces in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; the new prime minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny; and the leaders of Northern Ireland's coalition government.

Robinson said he understood that many Ulster Protestants consider it a sin to attend any Catholic ceremony, a view he normally observes himself _ but as government leader he had a duty to defend the policeman's sacrifice and honor his family's law-and-order stance.

"I hope people will understand that when dissidents murder a young man, that it is right that the political establishment stands up and makes it very clear that they stand with this family," Robinson said.

Just as striking was the sight of Sinn Fein's McGuinness, accompanied by party leader Gerry Adams, who was also attending his first police funeral.

For decades McGuinness and Adams were commanders of the IRA, an underground group that killed nearly 300 police officers and maimed thousands more during a failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Irish Republic. But today, McGuinness denounces the IRA dissidents and praises Catholic police officers.

The IRA received huge shipments of weapons from Libya in the mid-1980s, giving the group sufficient supplies to mount attacks for decades. The arsenal became a major bargaining chip in negotiations between the IRA's political wing Sinn Fein and Britain _ and culminated in the IRA's historic 2005 decision to disarm and renounce violence, followed by Sinn Fein's 2007 decision to accept the authority of the police.

However, before those peace moves, a minority of IRA members who disagreed with peacemaking seized at least some of the IRA weapons stores and moved them to new locations under the direction of the IRA's former weapons master, Michael McKevitt. He was later convicted in Dublin of founding a splinter group called the Real IRA and remains in prison.

Dissident IRA attacks over the past four years have demonstrated that they still have at least small quantities of Semtex and other Libyan-era weapons. Dissidents also have been caught in British sting operations trying to buy weapons in Lithuania, Slovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.