Northern Ireland at a crossroads?
For more than a decade, Northern Ireland had been spared from fatal attacks on security forces. Then, within two days, two soldiers and a policeman had been killed by terrorists. Why did it happen, and what does it mean for the future of Northern Ireland?
The first question is relatively easy to answer. The 1998 Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, while endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Republicans, was never without its opponents in this community. Nor was the very strategy of achieving a united Ireland by peaceful means. As early as 1986, some of those opposed to Sinn Féin’s engagement in the political process split from the Provisional IRA and formed the so-called Continuity IRA—the group that killed Constable Stephen Carroll of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on March 9, 2009. The killing of two soldiers just 48 hours earlier had been committed by a group calling itself the Real IRA who had split from the Provisional IRA in 1997 in opposition to Sinn Fein’s entering of the negotiations process that would eventually produce the 1998 Agreement.
The Sociology of Recent Violence
These two and other splinter groups had been considered a security threat for some time, and had, over the years since 1998, tried to derail Northern Ireland’s peace and political processes, including the Omagh bombing of August 1998 that killed 29 innocent civilians. Led by hard-line Republican ideologues, knowledgeable in terror tactics and with access to at least some weaponry and equipment, these groups now benefit from a larger reservoir of young angry, frustrated and alienated young men living in deprived areas hit hard by the current recession and not benefitting from any kind of peace dividend that was meant to come with conflict resolution. Crucially, a decade after the conclusion of the 1998 Agreement these groups bring together those nostalgic of the ‘military struggle’ and those who have no living memory of the human suffering that ‘the Troubles’ brought to Northern Ireland.
The Political Situation
The threat is a serious one, but it would be wrong to overestimate it. For one, Republican splinter groups are very small, estimated at no more than 300 activists at best, spread thinly across a range of groups from the Real and Continuity IRA, to the Irish National Liberation Army (or INLA, which emerged as early as 1975) and to a relatively new group called the Irish Republican Liberation Army, which is widely seen as an organised criminal group rather than as one with a political goal. Moreover, what distinguishes the environment in which these splinter groups operate today from the height of ‘the Troubles’ in the 1970s and 1980s is that they, in contrast to the Provisional IRA then, have virtually no community support. This point is particularly obvious considering that the Deputy Leader of Sinn Féin and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness (a self-confessed former member of the Provisional IRA) condemned the killings in no uncertain terms and urged his supporters to cooperate with the police in apprehending those responsible. This level of Republican cooperation with the security forces would have been completely unthinkable even 12 months or so ago. Perhaps, most importantly, political parties across the spectrum in Northern Ireland have stood united in their condemnation of the attacks rather than engaging in mutual recriminations.
New Security Threats
This is not to suggest that there is not potentially more violence under way. While it remains unclear whether the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA ‘synchronised’ their attacks or whether they are, in fact, trying to out-do each other in proving their prowess to their tiny number of supporters, the security forces have been swift and fairly effective so far in their response—yet, it is unlikely that they will be able to destroy the organisations completely in the short-term. Another potential source of threat, especially if dissident Republicans manage more attacks in the near future, would be Loyalist retaliation. In the past, Republicans and Loyalists often engaged in tit-for-tat killings, affecting mostly innocent civilians. So far, Loyalists have not ‘retaliated’. This reflects their weakness and deep involvement in organised crime, rather than a politically motivated struggle. Nonetheless, Loyalists have retained some capabilities that enable them to carry out their own attacks. The third threat are riots (spontaneous or organised) in either community. So far, people from both communities have united in their condemnation of the murders, but this is not to say that Loyalists might not in the future lash out violently in response to more attacks, even if their paramilitaries remain passive, or that Republicans could not respond in a similar way to police raids.
Prospects for Northern Ireland
These scenarios may seem possible, but they are not very probable — at least not in the sense that there is a serious danger to the stability of the political or peace process in Northern Ireland. Politicians and ordinary people have sent a very clear message to the terrorists: there is none but the most marginal support for a return to the dark days of violence in Northern Ireland. If anything, thus, the killings have proved counter-productive by reminding everyone of how much progress the region has made over the past decade. It also has reminded many people of those dark days of sectarian violence and strengthened their resolve not to return to that era. From that perspective, Northern Ireland is not at a crossroads today. People and politicians from both communities reject the choice that a small number of dissident Republicans are trying to force on them. Yet, while there may not be a crossroads ahead, the bump in the road that these killings represent needs to be taken serious. The way in which Northern Ireland has responded so far suggests that this has been understood. Northern Ireland truly has moved into a new era of peace and stability that the overwhelming majority of its people in both communities are not prepared to see spoilt by irredeemable men of violence.