ENNISKILLEN, United Kingdom: Eight of the world’s most powerful leaders will shut themselves away in splendid isolation for the G8 summit from Monday in a resort in a picturesque area of Northern Ireland that was once a bastion of the Irish Republican Army.
US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among the leaders holding two days of talks at the exclusive Lough Erne golf and spa resort, surrounded by freshwater lakes and located eight kilometres (five miles) from the town of Enniskillen.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, the summit host, has chosen the secluded location for security reasons and to stave off protests from anti-capitalism demonstrators that have haunted recent G8 summits.
Despite its remote location, the meeting will be surrounded by the biggest police operation in Northern Ireland’s history, involving 8,000 officers, although many will be deployed 80 miles away in the capital, Belfast, where demonstrations are expected.
Police also fear that dissident republican extremists opposed to the peace process in Northern Ireland might seek to launch a headline-grabbing attack in Belfast.
A forbidding security fence has been erected around the perimeter of the summit venue and a seven-mile stretch of the lough, or lake, has been shut.
Yet the choice of the venue is also highly symbolic, designed to highlight the progress made by the British province in the 15 years since the end of three decades of bombings and shootings in the sectarian conflict known as the Troubles.
Enniskillen itself was the site of a notorious IRA bombing in 1987, when 11 people were killed and 63 injured as they paid their respects to the war dead at a Remembrance Day ceremony.
“Frankly, ten years ago, 20 years ago, it would have been unthinkable to hold a G8 in Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh, and I’m really proud that we’re taking the G8 there to showcase this extraordinary part of our country,” said Cameron.
Today, although the economy of Northern Ireland is sluggish, Enniskillen is an attractive, bustling town that has undergone a substantial facelift for the G8 summit.
The local authorities say the revelation that two empty shops in the nearby village of Belcoo have been given fake shopfronts — hiding the fact that they are out of business — is misleading.
“Enniskillen has never looked better,” Brendan Hegarty, chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, told AFP. “On the island of Enniskillen more than 140 properties have had new signage so when you take it in that context the window dressing to these shops is marginal.”
The town of around 13,000 residents, nicknamed the Venice of Ireland for its watery abundance, has a proud history, and writers Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde went to school there.
It is aching to show off its best face to the leaders, although no visit is officially scheduled.
“There would be a general air of expectation that someone would come out from the event (to visit the town) — and there would be a degree of disappointment if that did not happen,” Hegarty said.
“We understand the security and logistical issues, but if they do come out, we’re here and we’re prepared to show the world leaders what a fantastic area this is.”
Police have voiced fears that dissident republicans — those splinter groups fighting for a united Ireland which refuse to abide to the peace process — will seek to use the summit to attack the security forces.
The focus of concerns is Belfast, though many of the dissidents know the terrain of County Fermanagh well.
“We expect something all the time. That’s our normal business — that’s the sad reality of Northern Ireland,” said Alistair Finlay, the assistant chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
The two main organised protests against the G8 will take place in Belfast on Saturday, when a total of 10,000 people are expected to take part.