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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.