The Olympic torch began its five-day tour of Northern Ireland with plenty of excitement and no signs of trouble Sunday as the territory’s Protestants and Catholics vowed to show the world how united the community has become after four decades of conflict.
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Police warned of extra security to deter any of the region’s small Irish Republican Army factions – still trying to undermine a broadly successful peace process with guns and bombs – from trying to disrupt the event.
But the Olympic torch proceeded from Belfast’s Titanic Quarter to the prosperous belt of towns along the County Down coast with no unusual security evident. Just as during its first two weeks on British soil in England and Wales, the crowds were free to stand beside the passing torchbearer, who was flanked by four to six tracksuit-clad security staff jogging alongside.
Between stops, a Northern Ireland police motorcycle unit used to protecting VIPs sped ahead to block roads and ensure the torch convoy of more than a dozen vehicles carrying support staff and media stuck to its ambitious schedule to reach every corner of this province of 1.7 million by Thursday.
Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that long supported IRA attacks but today helps govern Northern Ireland alongside its British Protestant majority, said all of Ireland was excited to see the symbol of the 2012 London Games arrive. The flame will cross the border Wednesday into the Republic of Ireland to tour Dublin, a special concession to demonstrate today’s exceptionally strong British-Irish relations and cooperation between the two governments on the island of Ireland.
”The all-Ireland torch relay is a celebration of sport, culture and our local heroes. This really is our opportunity to shine and showcase our cities, beautiful scenery and most of all the people who live here,” said Caral Ni Chuilin, the Sinn Fein sports minister for Northern Ireland.
Sunday’s torch run started at dawn in the Belfast docklands where the city’s most infamous export, the Titanic, was built a century ago. It headed east to Holywood, best known as the hometown of top-ranked golfer Rory McIlroy, then to the port of Bangor, the major town of a stretch of coastline known as the Gold Coast because of its reputation for comfort and affluence.
Along the sidewalks, sometimes the crowds of spectators grew to five deep in the hearts of town, but more often the torchbearer was able to wave to single groups of people cheering, whistling, hooting – or occasionally still rubbing sleep out of their eyes, bathrobes on, coffee mugs in hand.
The torch spends the rest of Sunday visiting Stormont Parliamentary Building, the base for Northern Ireland’s 5-year-old unity government, then showcasing some of the province’s most spectacular scenery along the coast north past glacier-carved forest glens and the Giants Causeway, with its strange carpet of hexagonal rocks running down to the Atlantic waves.
As the torch passed through predominantly Protestant towns east of Belfast, the locals’ loyalties were on display, with many waving British flags adorned with images of Queen Elizabeth II. Much of the torch’s later route goes through predominantly Irish Catholic turf, including areas where IRA extremists still committed to the idea of overthrowing Northern Ireland by force live.
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, also being celebrated this weekend. He said IRA splinter groups ”will take any opportunity to cause disruption.”
He said people might find roads blocked, and other unexpected security delays. ”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.
Several spectators said they doubted that any IRA splinter group would seriously disrupt the torch run. They said even if Irish republican extremists tried something, Northern Ireland’s people were determined to keep partying anyway.
”We’re not going to let that crowd of morons ruin our day. They represent zero-point-zero of the population. This is the real Northern Ireland,” said Gareth Wilson, 35, standing with his wife and two sons by the roadside with cell phones in hand, each snapping pictures as the torch cavalcade passed.