Olympic torch arrives in N.Ireland for 5-day tour

The Olympic flame flew first class Saturday to Northern Ireland

for a five-day tour that includes a visit to the Republic of

Ireland capital, Dublin, and features heightened security to ensure

that Irish Republican Army factions don’t spoil the

celebrations.

The Protestant and Catholic leaders of Northern Ireland’s unity

government welcomed Olympic officials as the flame landed at

Belfast City Airport. The flame spent its first two weeks on

British soil traveling through England and Wales, then much of

Saturday on the Isle of Man midway between Britain and Ireland.

Olympic officials had to receive special permission to carry a

live fire on board an aircraft. The symbolic spirit of the London

Games was kept in four lanterns secured into two front-row seats on

the British Airways chartered flight, watched over by a

firefighter.

Paul Deighton, chief executive of the London Organizing

Committee of the Olympic Games, carried one of the lanterns to

First Minister Peter Robinson, the British Protestant who leads the

Northern Ireland government, and his Irish Catholic colleague,

Deputy Minister Martin McGuinness. Their 5-year-old coalition is

the centerpiece of a successful peace process still facing

occasional assaults from IRA die-hards in several small groups.

Both leaders said they expected the Olympic tour to shine a

spotlight on how far Northern Ireland has come since the major

rival paramilitary groups – most notably McGuinness’ own

Provisional IRA – ceased fire in the mid-1990s, greatly reducing

the bloodshed over this British territory.

”We are privileged to welcome the flame to Northern Ireland and

to witness its journey … past many of our iconic landmarks,

creating what promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle for all

to see,” Robinson said.

But the torch’s ambitious itinerary through every corner of

Northern Ireland, and its arrival during United Kingdom-wide

celebrations marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th anniversary on the

throne, also pose a particular security headache for police working

to keep IRA die-hards at bay.

Underscoring the threat, a suspected IRA activist tossed a

grenade at a police unit Saturday in Northern Ireland’s

second-largest city, Londonderry, where the Olympic cavalcade will

spend parts of Monday and Tuesday. The police, who were searching a

property at the time, weren’t injured but their vehicle suffered

heavy shrapnel damage.

In Belfast a police deputy commander, Assistant Chief Constable

Alistair Finlay, said the Northern Ireland public would see heavy

deployments of officers both along the Olympic torch routes and at

events associated with the queen’s Diamond Jubilee events. He told

a press conference at police headquarters that IRA splinter groups

”will take any opportunity to cause disruption.”

He said people might find roads blocked, and other unexpected

security delays, to ensure that the IRA factions’ opportunities to

plant bombs or hoax devices near Olympic routes were minimized.

”We are taking these steps to keep communities and their officers

safe. We would not do this if it was not absolutely necessary to

protect life,” Finlay said.

But he said the deployment of so many police officers also would

present the anti-British militants plenty of opportunities to

attack their ”principal target,” police officers themselves.

The first of more than 400 Northern Ireland torchbearers will

depart Sunday at dawn beside Belfast’s newest tourist attraction, a

landmark Titanic exhibition on the same dockside where the doomed

liner was constructed a century ago. The torch and its accompanying

convoy of media and support staff is scheduled to stop at the grand

Stormont Parliamentary Building, center of the power-sharing

government, on a hill overlooking the city.

The second and third days in Northern Ireland see torchbearers

run past several points associated with the most savage atrocities

of the Northern Ireland conflict, staying overnight in

Londonderry.

While the torch isn’t supposed to travel outside its host

country, the Olympic procession starts day four in Dublin. The

Irish successfully lobbied for the political concession to

highlight today’s strong British-Irish relations. That day ends

back in Belfast for a major circuit of the city and a party outside

Belfast City Hall.