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Return of the gun

The hounding of an Irish journalist for her IRA contacts signals the security services’ panic at the

The murder of two British army soldiers and the killing of a policeman, and now the ominous threats from the British state to imprison the Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen unless she “gives up” her dissident republican sources, are grim reminders of the unfinished violent business of a united Ireland.

The shooting of two British army soldiers at Massereene Barracks and the murder of a policeman in Craigavon were carried out by two separate dissident republican factions. However, both served the same purpose: they were acts of bloody annunciation and potent demonstrations of the republican will to strike out at the ancient enemy, perfidious Albion. A number of individuals have since been arrested and charged but the threat of renewed bloodshed in Northern Ireland is palpable.

In the latest twist, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has turned on the respected Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen, who took the call from the Real IRA press spokesman announcing their bloody handiwork. Breen has been threatened with arrest and imprisonment unless she delivers up her notes of all her contacts with Real IRA dissidents.

The hounding of Suzanne Breen, when her phone was almost certainly being tapped by the security services anyway, is both mendacious and stupid, and a sign of panic by the authorities. Common sense tells us that you will not defeat terrorist organisations by imprisoning journalists who write about them.

But the Massereene Barracks attack is important because it marks a new beginning, a new threshold in escalation. The British state in Ireland is armouring up to counter even the possibility of a new generation of IRA gunmen.

Political warfare is never a simple act. Even a basic shooting requires three layers of organi­sation. There must be a leader to endorse the actions, command the gunmen and claim responsibility. Beneath the leader is the executive arm that organises the stolen car, the untraceable pay-as-you-go mobile phone chip, the scout car (also stolen), the money, the recruitment and the guns. And, in our media age, someone has to be press officer – hence the call of responsibility to Suz­anne Breen. There is one other vital department: the counter-intelligence arm, to identify would-be British security-force informers. And, supporting all of this, killer foot soldiers who believe that they will be protected from the wrath of the most powerful military state in Europe.

The retiring chief constable of the PSNI, Hugh Orde, has put the numbers of the dissidents at 300, branding them a tiny, isolated minority. His logic is misleading. Even 30 would be a significant challenge. The most important thing is not the numbers, but that they are back.

Even if these particular gunmen are caught and imprisoned, more will come in the future. Car bombs will go off. The Troubles will blink in and out of existence. If things get worse, Gerry Adams will be overthrown as the sole leader of Irish republicanism and in the chaos new, violent factions of the IRA will again emerge.

The real calculus of the Troubles was always the political impact each act of violence had on the rest of society. Just one lorry bomb – for instance, the 1993 Bishopsgate attack that took out a quarter of a mile of the City of London and caused £1bn worth of damage – can change the course of Irish history.

“The Troubles” was always a euphemism. It was the only phrase vague enough for every combatant to agree on. In practical terms it meant an episodic affliction: sporadic riots, targeted assassinations, contained mayhem and limited destruction. It was rebellion, not revolution. Most of the time the electricity worked, as did the phones. Murdering someone – a soldier, a paramilitary or some poor shopper – was just another way of getting a political message across. The threat, the possibility of ambush, was almost as potent as killing itself.

Trouble. That’s what the Real IRA gunmen, and those of Continuity IRA, are after. And as minor acts of terrorism go, both recent sets of dissident shootings have been spectacularly successful at delivering the message.

Predictably, the Brits played into the gunmen’s hands. No 10 hit the panic button, flying the Prime Minister to Ulster for an emergency two-hour photo opportunity to shore up “the peace process”. But what will the Downing Street PR men do when an IRA car bomb obliterates a shiny new shopping centre on the outskirts of Belfast? Will Gordon stay overnight?

The return of the gun to Irish politics was far from surprising. What is more surprising is that the “peace” – measured in terms of dead British soldiers – has lasted for 12 years. To understand why, you have to unpick the toxic theology of Irish republicanism itself.

In its purest form, Irish republicanism is not a political philosophy but a millenarian religion, guided by the unqualified belief in a predestined moral right – a united Ireland – whose coming into being will overwhelm 800 years of English oppression. It is a faith whose followers are immune to the mere temporal moral questions raised by shooting British soldiers in the head in 2009, or by the inadvertent slaughter of civilians on the streets of Omagh in 1998. Or by the 3,600-odd dead of the Troubles. It is a faith indifferent to the sacrifice of its own children; dead martyrs are far more useful than dead soldiers.

The absolutism of this belief explains Sinn Fein’s initial convoluted and contrived denunciation of the killing of the soldiers as “counterproductive”. It’s not wrong per se to shoot British soldiers in the head, the Sinn Fein logic goes, but wrong because it might delay Gerry Adams’s current plan to reunite Ireland, however it is that he intends to do that.

So when the Real IRA’s gunmen opened fire at the gates of Massereene Barracks on the hapless British army soldiers and their Polish-born pizza-delivery “collaborators”, they were, in their own mythology, killing the symbols of an illegitimate army of occupation on Irish soil, just as their forefathers had risen up against the British before them.

On this blood-soaked stage of Irish freedom there is no space for electoral detail. History demands that perfidious Albion must be confronted directly and solely by force of arms.

The Real IRA is not alone in holding this belief. Most Provisional IRA volunteers had no problem plotting the murder of British soldiers from their council houses – paid for by British taxpayers – in between trips to the local dole office to sign on for British welfare benefits. Reality never intruded. Economically the very notion of a united Ireland was and is insane. At every turn over the past 40 years, Ireland’s cruel oppressor has lavished its 1.7 million Irish subjects with cash and grants. Nearly 70 per cent of the Northern Irish population still works for the state. Annually, Britain subsidises Ireland to the tune of nearly £10,000 per head for every man, woman and child – £3,500 more than a citizen of London will receive. But this has never made any difference to republicans.

The myth of the righteousness of arms is important because it so dangerously flows from the same fountainhead of republican legitimacy that nurtures Gerry Adams and the Irish Republic itself – the bloody sacrifice of Padraig Pearse’s futile Easter Rising in 1916. Pearse’s hopeless rebellion was always a symbolic act, a piece of political theatre played with the lives of innocents, both to subvert his democratic electoral enemies and to bring down the wrath of Albion on the somnolent masses. Even today Pearse, like an Irish Lenin, is revered as the founding father of the Irish state, rather than the appallingly didactic and deluded, bloodthirsty quasi-fascist he was. His face is on Irish postage stamps, his uniform in a state museum, and he remains a litmus test of republican virtue.

Would Pearse have shot those two British soldiers? Would he have signed up for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement? The answer is yes to the shooting and no to the grubby deal of political compromise. Pearse’s “sacred mission”, and his gunman logic, have been carried forward by various generations of Irish gunmen from the 1950s and 1970s onwards. And, so it seems, unbroken to 2009.

For the Provisional IRA, Pearse’s legacy was enough justification for any act of murder. Fifty years of democratic elections, “usurping legis­latures” and the ballot box were mere trifles before the blowtorch of Óglaigh na hÉireann, the soldiers and car bombers of Ireland. As head of the IRA, Gerry Adams organised and condoned an episodic but three-decade-long war against the British state. And, like the other gunmen before him, Adams scoffed at those who talked about elections and an end to the futility of shovelling up dismembered corpses from the streets. The latest killers of the Real IRA are just a reincarnation of the gunmen of yesteryear. And as long as Irish republicanism reveres rather than repudiates Pearse, that lineage of fanatical gunmen will continue.

At some point in the late 1970s, Adams himself grasped the essential truth that has eluded many of his followers: that the Brits would never leave by force but, in the right circumstances, might be cajoled to depart. The road to a united Ireland, Adams now preaches, leads not through the gun, but through a revamped Stormont assembly – the very same institution that Adams was determined to blow up in the 1970s.

Naturally, there was opposition. Continuity IRA broke away in 1986 when the old 1950s leadership under Ruairi O’Bradaigh split over the vexed issue of actually taking seats at Stormont or in the Dáil – and hence recognising the legitimacy of the existing political institutions. The schism with the Real IRA emerged a decade later in 1997 when members of the IRA executive, led by Mickey McKevitt, baulked at forsaking the gun. But neither was a match for Adams.

Understandably there are those, some of whom took bombing orders from Adams, who now question what all the killing and bombing was for. But Adams’s machine keeps a tight hold of the wider republican family, suppressing dissent and ostracising those who question the leader or the long betrayal. And Adams has also been lucky. As the final details of the Stormont deal were brokered and rebrokered between 1998 and 2006, he was blessed by the disarray of his opponents. They were still reeling from the disastrous aftermath of the Omagh bomb in 1998, which killed 29 civilians, and the humiliating 2003 conviction of McKevitt, the Real IRA’s leader, on the word of an FBI informer. The dissident remnants remained bereft of leadership and were clearly so infiltrated by security-force informers that taking part in any dissident operation was a one-way ticket to prison. Adams could easily maintain his pope-like aura as the sole and absolute voice of the faith, who would somehow lead the faithful on to the Republic.

Sinn Fein’s long-term strategy, never publicly elucidated, was to rise to power in both north and south and subvert both governments from within. In 2006 all this seemed possible.

As the Celtic Tiger boomed south of the border, the north’s one million unionists were looking on with economic envy for the first time ever. Maybe a united Ireland was not such a bad economic idea. And the make-up of the Republic’s coalition governments meant that a small party such as the Progressive Democrats, with just eight TDs (members of the Dáil), could be a major coalition party in the Fianna Fáil government. Sinn Fein already had five TDs and hoped with a big electoral push to get ten. A Fianna Fáil-Sinn Fein coalition in the 2007 Irish general election could have been on the cards.

Except things did not turn out that way. Despite a lavish electoral campaign Sinn Fein lost a seat and now has just four TDs, all of whom are regarded as mediocre performers. And Adams has failed to project himself as a truly national Irish political figure – rather than that of a reformed gunman from the north.

Sinn Fein is seen in the Republic as an alien northern party that has largely failed to gain traction within the fiercely competitive internal electoral system. Nor, despite the economic downturn, is that likely to change any time soon. In Ireland’s multi-member, transferable-vote constituencies, candidates from the same party compete against each other. Electoral progress is incremental rather than dramatic. Even the Green Party has more TDs – six – than the bold Fenian men. The Sinn Fein project in the south has stalled.

At the same time, the Celtic Tiger has succumbed to banking collapse, staggering examples of institutional corruption and exploding unemployment. Never has the constant flow of sterling to our Irish province from the British Treasury been more comforting to the Queen’s Irish subjects.

This string of political misfortunes has inevitably weakened Adams’s control and emboldened his enemies within. The only pillar of his strategy left intact is Sinn Fein’s participation in Stormont. But without the lure of a political swell in the south, Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein are, ironically, propping up British rule in Ireland. The Real IRA dissidents, by their murders, are sending out a brutal but primitive message: that Adams is just another temporal politician who can be overthrown.

The dissidents will always be a tiny group. They will never match Adams’s Provisional IRA. Nor can they ever seriously militarily challenge the Northern Irish state. They have a limited capacity to sustain a prolonged campaign. But what matters is that they are prepared episodically to kill and bomb for their singular version of Irish freedom. And the caustic drip of that paramilitary poison will continue to destabilise the politics of Ireland. Ireland’s Troubles are with us now and will be in the times to come.

Kevin Toolis is the author of “Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul”, published by Picador (£7.99)