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Changing times: G8 leaders head to bucolic Northern Ireland (+video)

As recently as five years ago it would have been unthinkable to gather the world's most powerful leaders in Northern Ireland. The two-day G8 conference opens tomorrow. 

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As recently as five years ago it would have been unthinkable to gather the world's most powerful leaders in Northern Ireland. Things have changed as the G8 summit gets ready to start Monday.

With world leaders gathering in the picturesque backwater of Lough Erne, a major security operation is underway, but locals are hoping the inconvenience will be made-up for by demonstrating the locale's tourism potential in front of the world's press.

The high security – bomb proof police vans are dotted around the roads and checkpoints are in operation – is reminiscent of the worst years of the Northern Irish conflict, but the fact that the G8 is being held in Northern Ireland at all marks just how far the state has come.

The location of the conference lies close to Northern Ireland's border with the Republic of Ireland. During the three decade "Troubles," the border was a heavily militarized frontier – not quite the Cold War-era Inner German Border, but dotted with checkpoints, forts, a heavy police presence, and military patrols nonetheless.

Not anymore. Today drivers have to pay attention otherwise they'll miss it, with the only differences being different colored road markings and speed limits in kilometers per hour in the Republic and miles per hour in the North. Irish police man the usually empty border, but are content to wave through all comers, and seemed shocked when this reporter pulled over to ask questions.

Yards away, inside Northern Ireland's Country Fermanagh the security presence remains minimal until around two miles from the Lough Erne Resort where the world's most powerful people will meet. It is at this point that your reporter was politely turned around and directed to the Siberia of an official press center – over four miles away.

Locals looking for boost

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Hosted by British prime minister David Cameron – Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom – the G8, or Group of Eight, is a forum for the governments of the world's largest economies to talk shop. This year, tax, transparency, and trade are on the agenda. As a result the remote, if picturesque, west of Ireland will be a temporary home to figures including President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

The pending arrival of such luminaries for the two-day summit starting Monday has severely discommoded locals, but the area, always remote and now hard-hit by recession, is hoping for an economic boost.

In the immediate term, though, the opposite is happening.

David Hassard, co-owner of Crannog Antiques in Enniskillen, seems reticent to criticize the security operation despite his store being only a few hundred yards from the "ring of steel."

"There's been quite a bit of police activity but it's not inconveniencing things. Our business has been a bit quieter, but I can't say that's because of the G8," he says.

Just across the road from Hassard's boutique, Portora Royal School, once an elite Protestant boarding school that included Irish literary giants Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde among its past pupils, is now open to all boys based on academic ability and remains one of Ireland's top schools.

Headmaster Neill Morton, an avuncular, obviously passionate educationalist and native of Belfast, sees the event as positive, but doesn't want to speak on behalf of longstanding residents. He does suggest, though, that the ability to secure the area was a major factor in choosing Enniskillen as the site for the often-protested summit.

"It's fairly easily defended – it's in the remote west of Ireland, after all. It's very easy to secure the road [and] it's on an island [in Lough Enre] so they'll probably close the bridges," he says.

Northern Ireland, though largely peaceful, remains an unsettled polity and many see David Cameron's decision to hold such high-profile talks here as remarkable – for more reasons than one.

Enniskillen is best-known internationally as the location of the 1987 Remembrance Day Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing that resulted in 11 deaths and damaged the IRA's support even among Irish nationalists. This year's massive security operation, which has involved the drafting-in of British police to bolster local numbers, has evoked painful memories for some, but Mr. Morton, for one, sees hope and says Enniskillen is home to a forgiving and changing population.

"There are people who bear scars, but if the town is prosperous it's because of cross-border trade and there are [now] more Catholic students than Protestant students in the town," he says.

Others see the summit as symbolic – either of peace or of the British premier's staking-out a British claim on Northern Ireland in the face of the electoral success of Irish republicans and a challenge to UK sovereignty from Scottish nationalists. 

Some protest activity

Not everyone in Northern Ireland has welcomed the world leaders, though. Saturday saw a series of demonstrations in Belfast. 

The largest, a labor movement rally entitled "Another World is Possible," arrived at city hall at midday. Official estimates put the number of protesters at 1,500.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum – and local political divide – pro-British loyalists also marshaled at city hall, continuing their protests over the local council's 2012 decision to stop flying the British Union flag 365 days a year. The protests met, but passed-off without confrontation.

Police district commander Chief Superintendent Alan McCrum issued a statement describing his officers work as "a significant policing operation."

An anti-"fracking" demonstration was also held in the city, while "The Big If," a world hunger charity event directed at G8 leaders, was held later in the day.

Last week hard-line republican groups, including Republican Network for Unity, also took to the streets with hammer and sickle flags, with further demonstrations likely.

Back in Enniskillen, Gareth McKeown, a reporter on the Fermanagh Herald – one of the county's two local newspapers, the other being the impressively named Impartial Reporter – dismisses naysayers. 

"Eleven million pounds were spent on improving the roads – things like that can only improve things for the people here," he says.

Questioned about the potential for Islamic terrorism, Mr. McKeown simply laughs. More prosaic, but more serious, is the issue of fracking: "It's an almost universally unpopular idea around here," he says.

Protesters realize this and local groups have brought the issue into focus during the summit. Socialist party member Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh, a former local councilor, is helping to organize protests at the Lough Erne Resort.

Mr. Ó Cobhthaigh, who expects 2,000 protesters to arrive tonight at 7 p.m., agrees the G8 doesn't have the protester pulling-power it did a decade ago, but say issues like fracking have hit a nerve – and the G8's free trade agenda makes it relevant.

"The G8 is seeking to make any government's attempt to ban fracking illegal as an anti-market measure," he says.

So far the protests have been low-key, as is the response from residents to fears of terrorism – from Irish dissidents or global jihadists – aired by police and politicians.

Instead, the level of security has drawn some criticism, with Ó Cobhthaigh saying the strict measures may dissuade some protesters. "The big story here is the threat of drones, night courts, and the thousands of [temporary] jail cells they've built. All these things are building into a story of fear, fear, fear. Being lumped in with dissidents, acid-throwing anarchists, and Islamic terrorists? You have to ask, is protest being criminalized?" he says.

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