A NERVOUS-LOOKING teenager dressed in a blue shell-suit shuffles along the street, his eyes hooded by the peak of his baseball cap. Aged just 17, the youth from the Kilwilkie Estate in Lurgan, Co Armagh, may seem an unlikely threat to the British state. But appearances can be deceptive.
Last week, as the Troubles returned to Northern Ireland, this was a young man seemingly just a small step away from enlisting in the Continuity IRA. Brought up on stories of IRA "spectaculars" and with the recession ensuring bleak employment prospects, he yearned for the excitement of the Troubles.
As he walked past the freshly painted CIRA Republican graffiti on the grim council housing scheme, he paused to explain his views. "I would have liked to have been here during the Troubles," he admitted. "But it could go back, so it could." In his voice the note of hopefulness was plain.
"The Irish people can stand again and get the British out of Ireland. (Violence] is the only way Britain is going to move. Britain is making too much money out of this country and that's why they've held on to the six counties."
To him, the two British soldiers and a Roman Catholic policeman who died in the past eight days were expendable lives that could and should have been lost in the fight for a united Ireland. "Whenever there's a British solider shot dead there's naught but crying and dancing about it. War is war and that's the way I look at it. People are going to die and that's it," he said.
In the bad old days that was precisely the view held by the Provisional IRA before it was dragged into the peace process by its political masters Sinn Fein. But the journey taken by Sinn Fein/IRA under the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness has changed all that.
The peaceful path has not met with the 17-year-old's approval. In his opinion, Adams and McGuinness' strategy left dissident Republicans with no option other than to pursue the armed struggle themselves. "People just got fed up after all the Republicans losing their lives for Irish Freedom and then just laying their weapons down to Britain. We have to fight on," he said.
This weekend, as people of all sides of the argument were coming to terms with a Northern Ireland once more burying murdered men in uniform, there was some comfort being taken from the fact that views like the those of the 17-year-old from Kilwilkie were in a minority in the Nationalist community. Forty miles away, there was no appetite for a fight on the Falls Road in Belfast, still bedecked with Republican murals remembering the hunger-strikers and the 1916 Easter Rising.
"We can't go back to the way it was," said Dolores Keating, 25, as she put her two-year-old daughter Louise back into her pushchair. "We just want to get on with our lives. We've enough to worry about with the recession without bombs and guns."
The same view was expressed on the other side of the religious divide in the loyalist Shankill Road, where William Stewart, 47, was walking past the Orange Lodge. "I can remember the Troubles and I lost some good friends. What's happened in the last few days has been disgraceful. It's so scary to think that the killings have started again. It is just so sad. Those two soldiers weren't even old enough to know anything about the Troubles."
Mark Quinsey, 23, and Patrick Azimkar, 21, were killed by the Real IRA as they picked up a pizza delivery at the Massereene Barracks, Co Antrim.
Just 48 hours later Stephen Carroll, 48, was shot through the back of his head with a bullet fired from a high velocity rifle by the Continuity IRA on the Lismore Manor estate, Craigavon.
The first killings of British soldiers for 12 years sent a wave of revulsion throughout the Province – from the Protestant bible belt of North Antrim to the Republican heartlands of South Armagh.
The shock was palpable in the centre of Belfast, which has flourished in the new era of peace. The uneasy mood infiltrated the glass-fronted Victoria Square shopping centre, which has sprung up where fortifications once stood. "It's just unbelievable," said one middle-aged shopper. "We thought those days were behind us. I even checked beneath my car for devices this morning and that's not something I've done for years."
The feeling of fear was understandable. After all, it was in a crowded shopping area that the Real IRA committed the single worst atrocity of the Troubles when it detonated a car bomb in Omagh. Twenty-nine people and unborn twins died in the 1998 bombing. In the aftermath of Omagh, dissident activity had largely been limited to low-grade internecine killings and a few botched bomb attempts.
But recently, dissident groups have been bolstered by an explosive mixture of youth and experience.
"This was obviously coming, but the surprise was that it was so efficient," said Anthony McIntyre, a former member of the Provisional IRA who received an 18-year prison sentence for murdering a loyalist. "Up until now, they've never managed to kill anyone apart from innocent civilians and they were always getting caught. We used to call them the Braille IRA not the Real IRA, because they missed everything, but now they've proved they can operate with lethal accuracy."
Security sources say there are about 200 volunteers across the two dissident organisations and believe they have access to AK-47 assault rifles and Russian sniper rifles that were once owned by the Provisionals.
"They have separate leaderships, but there is a lot of crossover," said one source. "The two groups would share intelligence and ideas. Many are former Provos, but there is also a younger element under the age of 30, who were too young for the last campaign and are desperate for action. There are also plenty of former Provos, who are prepared to turn a blind eye to their activities or even offer some assistance."
But the death of one particular Provo accounts for much of the drift of Provisionals away from Adams and McGuinness' mainstream Republicanism. In May last year Brian Keenan, one of the most notorious figures in the Provisional IRA and admiringly known as the "hardest man of all", lost a long battle against cancer at the age of 66.
Feared and respected by his fellow volunteers, the charismatic Keenan was highly intelligent – but an utterly ruthless terrorist.
Keenan masterminded mainland bombing campaigns, arranged arms shipments from Libya and gave the go-ahead for the Kingsmill Massacre that killed 10 Protestant workmen in 1976.
As a former quartermaster of the Belfast Brigade and PIRA chief of staff, Keenan became involved in the peace process when he represented the IRA during the secret talks on weapons decommissioning.
He was close to Adams and used to travel to the PIRA strongholds in South Armagh and Co Tyrone, staying in safe houses and raising morale among the volunteers on the ground.
He told the militant members of the Provisionals that decommissioning was a pragmatic move that had to be made as a result of the outrage that followed the 9/11 attacks on America.
He kept them on board with Adams and McGuinness by reassuring them that decommissioning could be reversed and they could resume the armed struggle in the future.
"Part of the problem is Brian Keenan's death," said Lord Bew, Professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University. "Certain militants stayed there (within the mainstream], because he was loyal to Adams. He was a manic figure – the militant of the militant. They called him the hardest man of all.
"He commanded a lot of respect. Once he died people made their excuses and left. That seems to be part of the explanation for the improvement in the terrorist capacity."
The Continuity IRA's numbers may be small and they may have absolutely no political support, but recent events and security intelligence indicates that the dissidents have the wherewithal to carry out more killings.
"They are going to cause more problems," said John Mooney, the author of Black Operations – The Secret War Against The Real IRA. "They are intent on relaunching a campaign. They are not capable of launching a campaign comparable to the one launched by the Provisionals during the Troubles, but they have never gone away."
Having enjoyed a short spell of peace that has come close to some form of normality, last week's events in Northern Ireland were like stepping back in time. The constant buzz of overhead helicopters, police check-points, armoured Land Rovers and police officers carrying machine guns were distressing signs that a fragile peace now hangs in the balance.