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'Like a war movie': Painful past of the small town hosting the G8 summit

Enniskillen, a flashpoint of violence during the Troubles, the sectarian violence that consumed Northern Ireland for nearly three decades, will host the G-8 summit next week. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — The world’s leaders will descend on a secluded golf resort in Northern Ireland on Monday for the G8 summit. Minutes away sits Enniskillen, a small town with a painful past.

Less than 10 miles from the border with Ireland, this town was one of the key flashpoints during the so-called Troubles, the sectarian violence that consumed Northern Ireland for more than three decades.

Enniskillen is so steeped in tragedy and violence that British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged it would have been “unthinkable” even a decade ago that it would be at the center of the world stage.

One crisp November morning in 1987, militants belonging to the Irish Republican Army bombed the town's annual memorial ceremony for British war veterans. The attack killed 11 people and injured 63.

Stephen Gault remembers that day clearly. He is now 43 years old, just six years younger than his father was on the day he was killed.

“I remember being knocked unconscious for about 30 seconds — coming round, eery silence, dust everywhere,” recalled Gault. “The only thing I could hear was the distant ringing of a shop alarm and then all of a sudden, as if you flicked on a switch, it was like a war movie. Everything just erupted, pandemonium, people screaming, people lying dead beside me.”

The atrocity has made Enniskillen a highly symbolic place, despite its prior proud history – writers Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett attended a local school.

The Queen made history there last year – the 25th anniversary of the bombing — when she walked across the town’s narrow high street between the Protestant and Catholic churches which face one another. It was the first time the Queen had ever set foot in a Catholic church on the island of Ireland.

PA via AP, file

The Cenotaph in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, with the devastated community centre in the background after it was hit by an IRA bomb, is seen in this November 11, 1987 file photo.

And on the site of the bomb now stands the Clinton Centre – an cross-community educational facility inaugurated and visited many times by President Bill Clinton.

“People who thought at the time of the Enniskillen bomb in 1987 that it would drive a wedge between the Catholics and the Protestants,” reflects Gault. “But if anything it worked the opposite way, it brought the two communities closer together.”

Fifteen years after the landmark 1998 peace agreement, Northern Ireland’s affairs have dramatically changed — but there is still room for progress.

PhotoBlog: Derelict Northern Ireland shops get facelift ahead of G8 summit

“I think there's been a massive transformation,” says Sean Murray, a former IRA prisoner and current Sinn Fein activist. “That’s not to say there are no contentious issues left.”

Standing at one of Belfast’s imposing "peace walls" — erected during the conflict to separate nationalist and unionist communities — Murray says that there is still a fear of violence on each side.

“There’s intermittent violence at this peace wall. It's low level: it's stones, it's bottles, but it's still violence and it still interrupts people's lives.”

Tensions have begun to rise again. In January, Belfast saw riots with over plans to stop flying the British flag over the city hall. Last summer, Catholic youths fought running battles with police.

Then there are those who continue to claim there is a war over what they call the British ‘occupation’ of Northern Ireland.

John Connolly was convicted for possession of a mortar bomb in 2000. “That device consisted of 250 pounds of homemade explosives,” Connolly told NBC News last week. “I was apprehended, caught along with my two comrades going to carry out an attack on a military base in Fermanagh.”

Paul Mcerlane / Reuters, file

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton meets local people during a visit to Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 5, 2002. He was opening a peace center in the town where an IRA bomb killed 11 people in 1987.

Connolly said he is no longer a member of any militant group, and does not speak on their behalf. But he said the sectarian war is far from over.

“I don’t believe there is a peace process,” Connolly said. “It’s dead and buried at the minute.”

Security sources estimate the number of IRA "dissidents" who aim to continue the armed campaign number only a few hundred. And  while the dissident attacks are often foiled, the fact that there are even attempts exist worries many.

In March last year, 25-year-old policeman Ronan Kerr was killed outside his own house, and in 2009 two British soldiers were killed as they accepted a pizza delivery outside their barracks in County Antrim.

“There will always be those who would take up arms against a foreign occupation,” Connolly insists. “Will I condemn them? No I won’t.”

One fear is that Protestant terrorist groups, like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), might get pulled into increased violence.

William Smith, a former UVF prisoner and current unionist political activist committed to peace, agrees that while huge progress has been made, now is not the time for complacence.

“There's been massive progress in Northern Ireland,” Smith says. “But it’s still a work in progress. You just can't just walk away and say, 'Well there's a peace center now and that's it' — or there's a danger of slipping back.”

NBC’s Sarah Burke and Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.