Protestant extremists claimed responsibility Wednesday for the slaying of a Roman Catholic teenager amid fears in this British province of a descent into more widespread violence over this weekend's disputed Protestant parade in Portadown.
A passenger on a motorcycle fatally shot 19-year-old Ciaran Cummings in the town of Antrim--the first killing of its kind in Northern Ireland in more than a year.
Cummings was standing on a sidewalk waiting to be picked up for work when he was shot several times at close range. He died on the spot.
An outlawed group called the Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility for the attack in Antrim, about 25 miles north of Portadown. The group came into existence after other outlawed gangs called cease-fires in support of the province's 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
The Red Hand Defenders said it shot Cummings because Catholics last month elected two members of Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army, to the council in Antrim, his hometown.
The claim was made in a telephone call to Ulster Television by a caller who used a code word.
Politicians appealed for calm after the killing, which deepened community divisions in the run-up to the most potentially volatile parade in an annual summer "marching season" by Protestants.
A government-appointed Parades Commission delayed its final ruling on whether to bar Protestant Orangemen from marching Sunday through Portadown's hostile Catholic district, Garvaghy Road.
Whichever course is taken, recent history suggests it will provoke violent protests. Many Catholics on Garvaghy Road have stocked up on food and sent their children away to relatives in anticipation of a protracted standoff with their Protestant neighbors.
Key parts of the landmark 1998 pact are in danger of falling apart this month, particularly the province's joint Catholic-Protestant government.
The sectarian ugliness so evident in Portadown--where each side clings to its own version of reality--helps to explain why.
"There is nothing offensive in the slightest with our parade. Our procession was always peaceful and dignified before IRA men on the Garvaghy Road went down this path of cultural genocide. Their goal is to divide and destroy the Ulster Protestant community," asserted David Jones, Portadown spokesman for the Orange Order, Northern Ireland's major Protestant fraternal group.
"The fact that the Orangemen refuse to speak to us after so many years tells you a lot about their supremacist, racist mind-set," said Breandan MacCionnaith, the former Irish Republican Army convict who leads the Garvaghy protests. "It's extremely difficult to imagine a day when Orange feet would ever be welcome in our community."