Why dissident groups will fail in Northern Ireland

The ideology of terror is a fading force.

An innocuous photo emerged after the Omagh bomb of 1998, showing a Spanish tourist posing with his daughter atop his shoulders on Market Street, Omagh. The picture was taken just minutes before the maroon Vauxhall Cavalier shown parked behind them exploded, leaving a three-metre-wide crater in the road and killing 29 people.

Ronan Kerr was 12 years old at the time of the tragedy, but 14 years later, on 2 April 2011, he became the victim of another bomb in Omagh, planted by an anonymous paramilitary group. Kerr was from a Catholic family and a newly qualified officer in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which many Catholics would never have considered joining until just recently.

Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace process in Northern Ireland has suffered several attempts at violent destabilisation, but these acts have never found popular legitimacy. After decades of civil conflict and more than 3,500 deaths, the people of Northern Ireland no longer want violence, but instead support peaceful, diplomatic resolutions to any further conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

The attack has been denounced throughout Ireland and beyond, including by all four of Northern Ireland's main unionist and republican parties, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Presbyterian Moderator and the Irish Methodist Church, along with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and David Cameron.

The disgust at the bombing expressed across Northern Ireland's religious divides indicates that the country is embracing power-sharing, and is almost completely detached from the influence of any sort of subversive political group. The ideology of terror and nationalism on either side of the Catholic-Protestant divide is a swiftly fading force in Northern Ireland, and despite disturbing attempts by groups such as the Real IRA to reignite tensions, the country has stood firm and proved its commitment to peace.

Nevertheless, active dissident groups clearly remain in Northern Ireland and continue to oppose the peace process, despite appeals on both sides of the religious divide and the efforts of security forces in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Among the most dangerous are Oglaigh na hEireann, or the Continuity IRA, and the aforementioned Real IRA. Oglaigh na hEireann claimed responsibility for a car bombing in January 2010 that left another Catholic police officer, Peadar Heffron, severely injured.

The Continuity IRA were found to be the perpetrators of the fatal March 2009 shooting of a PSNI constable, Stephen Carroll, in Craigavon, County Armagh. The incident occurred just two days after the Real IRA shot dead two British soldiers at the Massereene army base in County Antrim.

Despite this, the Northern Ireland Assembly completed its first full mandate last month, and the Kerr murder has united the country, which will further strengthen the peace process. This was exemplified poignantly by the fact that Kerr's funeral was attended by Martin McGuinness, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, the new Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson.

It is clear that a cross-section of Irish society is horrified by the events of last weekend, Consider the following quotes:

Robinson said:

The murder of this young Catholic policeman newly recruited to the PSNI is shocking and deplorable . . . The people of Northern Ireland have rejected violence and this act will not further the cause of dissidents one iota.

The SDLP chairman, Joe Byrne, stated:

Those responsible have no support in the town of Omagh. Nobody wants them . . . Omagh is a mixed town and we're proud of our Catholic police officers. The amount of anger and stunned sadness from across every section of the community shows that.

Tom Elliott, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said:

I totally condemn the evil and cowardly attack which took place in Omagh this afternoon. The people responsible for the attack have one aim and one aim alone – to take Northern Ireland back to the dark days of the past. All of us have a duty to ensure they do not succeed.

Martin McGuinness stated:

Nothing these people will do will break Peter Robinson's, or mine, indeed, or the other political leaders in our society north and south['s] . . . determination to ensure that this peace process continues to go from strength to strength. Our position is one of defiance. We stand here united, there is nothing can be done which will break that. And ultimately we are the people who will prevail.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.