How significant is the latest outburst of violence in Northern Ireland? Despite six consecutive nights of rioting in Derry and attacks on the Belfast homes of Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Fein president, and Bobby Storey, a veteran republican activist and former IRA member, some say not very.
Civil unrest, so the argument goes, is usual around July’s loyalist marching season. That much is true but last week’s violence is notable both for its intensity – shots were fired, pipe bombs thrown and police have warned that it is only a matter of time before a child or officer is hurt or worse – and the seemingly unfillable political vacuum it has exposed.
The five biggest political parties in Northern Ireland – the DUP, Sinn Fein, the moderate nationalist SDLP, the Ulster Unionists, and the Alliance – issued a joint statement to appeal for an end to the violence (Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, made a similar plea for calm in Derry last week).
“Attacks on the police have been on-going for a number of days alongside other violence including sectarian attacks on houses, petrol bombs thrown at the police, intimidation of contractors, vehicles hi-jacked and attacks on sheltered accommodation.
“The shots fired last night were a clear and obvious attempt to murder police officers. There must be a strong, clear and united voice against those who would engage in such disgraceful violence.
“As a society we must all stand with those who maintain law and order and who protect all sides of our community.
“We condemn any illegal activity and urge those who are damaging their own community and intimidating their neighbours to stop. We would urge people to work with the police to bring those involved in criminality to justice.
“We want to see a society where people can live together without the threat of intimidation or violence.”
Their doing so, at a time when Stormont has been without a functioning executive for 18 months – and with no sign of one returning – underlines the gravity of the situation. But the striking thing about this statement is what it doesn’t say: there is neither call nor commitment to get cross-community power-sharing back on the road.
Even in the face of sectarian violence that could easily turn into a more protracted, dangerous episode, there is no real political will, nor a plan, for restoring devolution. Some have speculated that the consensus engineered by the parties’ opposition to violence could get Sinn Fein and the DUP back around the table.
In reality, however, the violence serves to illustrate just how distant a return to devolution is – and how little will there is to change that. Not even last week’s grim scenes can engineer a new impetus for cooperation. The conversation is now almost exclusively focussed on exactly what kind of direct rule mechanism will fill the democractic vacuum left by Stormont’s absence. It will take more than well-meaning platitudes to make its restoration a live prospect again.