The shadow of paramilitary violence is lengthening over Northern Ireland once more. In the wake of a trio of cold-blooded assassinations by republican dissidents, there is now anxious talk of a sliding back to the bleak days of the Troubles.
But, for all the justified anguish over the killings of two soldiers in Antrim and a police officer in Craigavon, it is wrong to exaggerate the political significance of these atrocities. Having spent all of my formative years in Ulster at the peak of the Troubles, and with most of my family still in Belfast, I find all the rhetoric of doom wildly overblown. Northern Ireland is not on the verge of collapse into sectarian anarchy. In fact, the near-universal revulsion at the terrorist attacks should be taken as a sign of hope.
Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the leading figures in Sinn Fein, to have condemned the shooting of two British soldiers by republicans, but that is precisely what they have done this past week. Yet the language of denunciation used by Adams was insufficiently savage for some right-wing commentators, who will never be happy until the Sinn Fein president wears a Union Jack waistcoat and sings “Rule Britannia” on the steps of Stormont. This call for Sinn Fein to meet some arbitrarily fixed tone of moral outrage is both foolish and irresponsible.
Rather than demand more indignation, observers should give their support to Adams and McGuinness in their ceaseless efforts to keep the mainstream republican movement within the fold of democratic Irish politics. Fortunately, this is exactly the line pursued by Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who has behaved with statesmanlike maturity and calm, promising that the peace process will not be derailed.
The leading Ulster politicians, unlike some parts of the British media, are right to show a sense of perspective about the killings. The recent atrocities in Antrim and Craigavon are nothing like the daily cycle of violence that occurred in the 1970s, when my homeland was a place of genuine fear. Bombings, murders, riots and beatings were routine, while the Provisional IRA had a large membership and high levels of public support. In contrast, today’s dissident republican groups are little more than criminal gangs. They are a lethal nuisance, not a dangerous political movement. According to the Irish ministry of justice, the Real IRA, the outfit that has claimed responsibility for the shooting of the two soldiers in Antrim, has no more than 150 active members. Formed in 1997 as a protest against the Provisionals’ involvement in the peace process, the Real IRA carried out the Omagh bombing in 1998. This was the worst terrorist incident in Northern Ireland’s history, in which 29 people died, but since then, despite its regular blood-curdling threats about a “new offensive”, it has not been able to mount any serious attacks.
Continuity IRA, perpetrator of the killing of the policeman in County Armagh, is an older and smaller unit, created in 1986 as a protest by a tiny group of hardliners against Sinn Fein’s move towards participation in democratic politics. There are a number of other fringe groups, including Óglaigh na hÉireann (Warriors of Ireland) and the Irish Republican Liberation Army, but the total number of active dissident republicans is thought to be no more than 300, enough to cause bloodshed but not devastation. Indeed, that figure looks even smaller when compared to the 2,000 active jihadists that the Metropolitan Police believes are operating within England.
What these minuscule splinter groups want is an overreaction. They are seeking more British troops on the streets, and more statements of panic. But from my experience of Northern Ireland in recent years, I believe that will not happen. The peace process is real and embedded, contrary to the claims of some Conservative pundits, who have almost gleefully seized on the killings as
evidence of the “fragility” of the process and the fact that “the IRA never went away”.
This is just nonsense, and it plays to two of the greatest myths about recent events in Northern Ireland. The first is that the settlement embedded divisions in the province by squeezing out the moderates and rewarding the extremists of Sinn Fein and the DUP. Such an analysis could hardly be more mistaken. Just the opposite happened. It was the extremists who moved towards the centre, abandoning their age-old enmities. In particular, the IRA decided to accept the will of the Unionist majority and the sovereignty of Britain over the six counties. That was a remarkable step forward, which would not have happened without the courageous leadership of Adams and McGuinness, dragging their reluctant followers through every painful step of the journey to peace.
The other great myth is that the process was nothing more than cowardly appeasement by the British Establishment. Again, the opposite is true. The IRA gave up the armed struggle partly because its members knew they could never win it. They were beaten by the British security forces, which built a formidable network of informers to destroy the IRA from within. Even the IRA’s head of security, Freddie Scappaticci, was a British double agent. In effect, the talks that led to the Belfast Agreement of 1998 were the negotiations on terms of surrender.
The key to defeating the IRA was an approach known as Ulsterisation. Started in the 1970s under Labour’s tough Northern Ireland secretary Roy Mason, it stressed the need to treat the terrorists as criminals, so the emphasis was on security rather than politics. In the end, as the IRA became a broken shell of an organisation, Ulsterisation was proved to have worked.
Exactly the same thing needs to happen today. The killers should not be dignified by reference to their supposed politics. That gives them too much credibility. They have no following and they represent nothing but their own bigoted hatred. And that is why they are ultimately doomed to fail.