It was like a news bulletin of 20 years ago. Two Brits and one policeman shot dead.
People old enough to remember the bad days feared the worst and doubtless the perpetrators had hoped for the worst. Their strategy was to force a chain reaction that would unravel the peace process and make their fringe and outdated views relevant again.
Locating the first attack in South Antrim would bring local MP Wild Willie McCrea back on the public stage. Nationalists would recoil. DUP backwoods preachers are emboldened to make provocative statements. Simmering tensions between SF and DUP would boil over leading to paralysis of the Executive. Loyalist retaliation against uninvolved Catholics would harden attitudes, heighten fears and create further momentum for a harder line within the mainstream Republican Movement. This would be aggravated by an over-the-top security force response and a partial return of the British Army to the streets. After a number of iterations of this cycle, SF would find it impossible to survive in Government or would suffer a further damaging split increasing support for the fringe groups, or both. Arms would flow in from Eastern Europe, former USSR states and Africa. Within a few years or possibly sooner we would be back to 1980 levels of conflict and another generation would be filling the jails and the graveyards. Very plausible and very worrying. Except to date none of this predictable chain reaction has happened.
What has actually happened reveals just how much has changed in the North. After an early scary moment when Wild Willie was briefly allowed near a microphone, all parties have acted in a manner which defeats the purpose of the dissidents and have refused to revert to previous form. The Unionists including the DUP and former paramilitaries have by and large resisted the urge to use the killings as a means of embarrassing Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein has come out more strongly in favour of the PSNI than ever before. The First and Second Ministers, Robinson and McGuinness, have stood resolutely together and avoided the temptation to curry tribal favour. The Police Chief Hugh Orde has avoided talking up the role of British Army covert specialist assets. He may indeed have questions of his own to ask the army now. Like what Brits in desert battle dress were doing standing outside their barracks waiting for a pizza delivery in a week when the Police Chief had said the risk of violent attacks on the security forces was at its highest in 10 years. Reassuringly the “republican street” has appeared almost totally opposed to the dissidents who seem isolated and vulnerable to early police penetration and arrest. Hopefully, provided all key actors keep their heads, these events of 2009 will be a footnote to the long history of political violence since 1969 and the Continuity and Real IRA will be of concern to only the most dedicated of Table Quiz anoraks.
Who are the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA? The Continuity IRA derives from a split in the Republican Movement (Sinn Fein and IRA) in 1986 over the issue of abstentionism when those who wanted to stick to the orthodox republican ideology of not recognising partitionist parliaments left Sinn Fein to found Republican Sinn Fein. Gradually they developed a military wing but as long as the mainstream IRA was pursuing its military campaign the Continuity were barely relevant. Using a combination of semi-retired older operatives and very inexperienced youngsters they were notable only for their amateurishness. The Real IRA was initially a much more dangerous organisation who emerged after the second IRA ceasefire in the summer of 1997 which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This split had been long threatened and had only been delayed by skilful manoeuvring by the Adams-McGuinness faction. The Adams-McGuinness faction had managed to shift a lot of weapons and munitions out of the control of local commanders in advance of the ceasefire and into large secure dumps in the Republic. Nevertheless the Real IRA had access to much material through their leader McKevitt who had long service at the head of the IRA’s logistics operations. However they were short of manpower and were on occasions forced to rely on inexperienced Continuity IRA members. It is believed that the Omagh bomb was manufactured by experienced Real IRA bomb makers but was moved into position by Continuity IRA people who panicked under pressure. This earlier, more effective and politically dangerous RIRA-CIRA campaign was completely halted by the disaster of the Omagh bombing and the dissident factions who collaborated in that catastrophe have never regained the limited public support and ‘military’ effectiveness that they had displayed throughout the summer of 1998. The killings of the past few days have hopefully ended any hope of a revival in a similarly definitive manner.
What types of people participate in such organisations? We are told that the CIRA is strongest in Fermanagh and Armagh and Limerick and Tipperary. Limerick and Tipperary? You can’t be serious. Yes I am and recent court cases bear this out. On a quiet Sunday in Limerick in early January strange figures were noticed walking uncertainly around O’Connell Street. Skinny long-haired youths in drab combat jackets that were far too large for them, the odd pair of sunglasses, older and often overweight men and women in leather jackets trying to look important and serious. The casual observer might have thought it was some sort of experimental drama or a retro charity event. In Bedford Row, though, where these odd groups could be found massing, you would have realised that it was the annual Sean South Commemoration. Here things were more serious. A Band was playing and motley uniforms had been assembled into military-style formation. The banners said Republican Sinn Fein, (CIRA) and 32 County Sovereignty Movement, a group which is sometimes seen as the political wing of the RIRA. These are people for whom politics are a set of immutable certainties. It was odd, slightly amusing and also sad to see these people whose views once so dangerous and relevant were now so marginal and irrelevant to others in the street many of whom were too young to remember the â€˜troubles’ and many others were not even Irish and who must have been really confused. Now of course this gathering appears far more sinister giving some sort of spurious legitimacy to the arbitrary taking of human life.
Hopefully some or even many of the people who turned out in Bedford Row to commemorate Sean South will reflect on the extent to which they may not only have collaborated or condoned the killing of three professional people but also have been party to a conspiracy to end the peace on this island. Everybody including the dissidents will need to learn the right lessons from these unacceptable and unnecessary attacks. Commemorations we can accept or even indulge. Actions designed to stop the peace process clock and return the island to hatred and bloodletting can not be condoned. Maybe these misguided and discredited legions of the rearguard have unwittingly provided a useful service to Ireland, reminding us and more importantly our leaders, how precious boring peaceful politics is, however infuriating and cantankerous it might appear at times, and how unthinkable the alternative would be.