Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar were the first soldiers killed in N Ireland in 12 years [AFP]

For those who follow Northern Ireland, the events on Saturday night didn't come as a surprise.
  
Since November, dissident republicans have launched 15 attacks using bombs, booby traps, landmines and guns. 

Few were reported in any detail in the newspapers because Northern Ireland "bores" editors and of course there is the prevailing wisdom that after 30 years of "The Troubles", the province is at peace. 

In fact, a deadly attack was considered inevitable by the security forces. 

My own contacts told me the idea of a some kind of spectacular incident had gone away and that those opposed to the political process were far more likely to target "a couple of cops on patrol in the street".

The town of Antrim lies northwest of Belfast and is home to the Massereene army barracks that was attacked. 

The reaction to the deaths of the two soldiers killed in the assault was clear in the town.

People of all faiths and political persuassion took to the street and insisted that there should be no going back to the dark days of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

There are young children growing up in Northern Ireland who can't remember a time when sectarian conflict stalked the streets, when people were killed for their religion or the uniform they wore or even the job they had. 

They have enjoyed the so called peace dividend.

Different place

The British government has pumped millions of dollars into the province to create employment and support investment, with new buildings springing up all over the place. 

Northern Ireland truly is different from the place I called home in the 1990s.

Police forensic officers at the Massereene army base where the two soldiers died [AFP]

But not different enough for some. 

When the Irish Republican Army (IRA) effectively announced it was ending it's violent campaign against the British presence in the northeast corner of Ireland, that politics was the long war to be fought instead, some grabbed their guns and went home angry. 

For them, the military campaign had to continue.  The "Brits" had to be forced out and the island united once more.

And so they splt from the IRA.  There was the Real IRA, and the Continuity IRA.  And their campaigns continued, most notoriously with the Real IRA's Omagh bomb in August 1998, which left 29 civilians dead and was the worst single attrocity in the 30 years of violence.

After the outrage and the condemnation, these groups had less of a voice and less influence, but they never went away. 

A fact reinforced by the call last week by Hugh Orde, Northern Ireland's top policeman, to ask for army special forces to help monitor them. 

He knew they were growing more threatening but the bigger danger was the split in their ranks, making them harder to follow and trace.

Sinn Fein, the main Republican party and linked closely to the IRA, warned against it. It said special forces being deployed was never good and should be avoided.

The attack makes that harder for it to argue. 

It puts them in a difficult position and the people behind the attack, the Real IRA, will be delighted.

For them it was a murderous assault which claimed "Crown Forces" and put the dominant Republican party in a place where they'll anger supporters if they change their position.

'War over'

And so the inevitable question since the attack: what does it all mean for the peace process? 

In general, nothing.  The condemnation by Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will help. 

 Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, condemned the attack [EPA]
Rarely have they criticised Republican violence but in what was a deeply significant and even historical moment,  McGuinness, a former IRA commander, backed the police manhunt and insisted "That war is over".

Anything less and it's government partners in the Northern Ireland assembly, and their polar political opposites, the Democratic Unionist Party, might have walked out threatening all the democratic institutions.  Now it will stay.

It will cause some difficuties.  And if there are more attacks, and it's likely there will be, well that will increase those problems. 

What is important here is context. The splinter groups are small, maybe numbering 500 people altogether, a handful of active members, the rest supporters. 

They are not well funded and crucially don't command a groundswell of public support.

After all that Northern Ireland has gone through, the path to a lasting and sustained peace was always going to be troublesome. 

But if you look back 20 years, ask if you ever thought we'd be where we are today? 

The IRA guns silent, loyalist groups maintaining the ceasefire, no troops on the streets and Sinn Fein sitting in a devolved government in Belfast.  Such advances are not easily lost.

Source: Al Jazeera