Tuesday, March 10, 2009 

The peace process strikes back.

The sudden revival of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is neither as sudden nor as surprising as has been made out in some quarters. Warnings had been made over the last couple of years that dissident Republicans were growing in strength, or at the least growing in their brazenness; the terrorist groups on both sides have long kept their capability to commit outrages on ice, mainly to enforce their criminal rather than political activities. Quite why they chose precisely now to launch the first murders of soldiers and policemen in over 10 years is unclear, but it might not be entirely unrelated to the decision last week by Sir Hugh Orde to reintroduce special forces troops into the province, ostensibly on the grounds of preventing that which has now happened, but a move that has always been a red line with nationalists.

Immensely important here is gaining a sense of perspective. At most, active members of both the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA number in the low hundreds, if that; their supporters are probably only a few hundred higher, and going by the graffiti which has quickly been sprayed up on walls some of those involved may well not be able to even remember the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The next generation, sometimes just until they grow out of their youthful radicalism, often want to rerun the battles of their fathers. Furthermore, if we deal with the murders of the two soldiers and the policeman as we should have responded to the far larger threat posed by Islamic extremists, who themselves probably number not much more than the groups in Northern Ireland but who often have far wider aspirations, as criminal acts and not as an existential challenge, the number of murders involving shootings in London alone in a month is probably more than the three in the last few days.

Always key to isolating support for the extremists was the response of Sinn Fein. More even than a challenge to the peace process itself, the attacks were a challenge to them, intended to push the party and the IRA's former members and leaders now turned politicians into what they regard as full collaboration with the British state itself. This was why the criticism, almost all from the right-wing press, directed at Sinn Fein for not condemning the attacks harshly enough was potentially incredibly counter-productive; both Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have had to provide a balance between denouncing their former comrades while not alienating their supporters by giving too much away. They were certainly right to suggest that these attacks were also aimed at cultivating a harsh overreaction from the state: they know more than anyone that it was the doors being kicked in, the impunity of the RUC and the treatment of the nationalist community that brought more recruits than anything else into the IRA. It certainly wasn't their rhetoric or other political aims, that's for certain.

John Ware noted in his Guardian article
that the "m" word had not been used by Sinn Fein. This might well have been because they were building up to using a far more punishing and ostracising one: standing alongside Orde and the first minister Peter Robinson, McGuinness denounced those responsible for the murders as traitors. For a member of Sinn Fein to be standing alongside either man at a press conference would not so long ago have been unthinkable; for him to also launch such a vicious, angry assault on the RIRA and CIRA could well be as historic a moment as some of the previous signings of agreements have been, as was the formal declaration from the IRA that war was over and that their weapons had been put beyond use. After his statement, the criticism about Adams' supposed "mealy-mouthed" criticisms or him fanning the flames by comparing the deaths of soldiers to the death of former provisionals seems utterly misplaced.

Just as it was to be hoped that the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan last week may have brought the disparate factions there together in condemnation of those who wished to undermine their nation state, it seems more likely that something along those lines may happen now in Northern Ireland. Of course, the huge differences between the nationalists and the unionists are never going to be fully breached, but the overwhelming response so far has been that the people there never want a return to the days where the gun and the bomb, but most of all fear itself, ruled the day. Sinn Fein has done all that could be reasonably asked of them: now it is up to the police force they have come to support to bring those responsible to justice.

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