I’ve just come back from the NIC-ICTU peace rally, and I suppose it’s worth jotting down some thoughts on the deadly dissident attacks of the past few days. But there really isn’t much that can be said about the killings themselves, except on a human level. The depressing jolt back to what we used to hear on the news on a weekly basis, but had become accustomed to not hearing in recent years. Then you’re struck by the sheer futility of it, and the stupidity of any idea that rerunning the Provo campaign on a micro scale is a worthwhile exercise. How, if you aren’t part of that small milieu that values militarism in and of itself, this is completely insupportable.
That’s just in terms of immediate, subjective responses, and as I say, there’s not much more to be said about the events. There is plenty, though, to be said about the context and the responses. There are some useful points made by Liam, some more by Richard, plenty of intelligent discussion as usual on Cedar Lounge, and if you’re so minded you can read Eamonn McCann’s take on the situation, although Eamo does seem a little disingenuous to me.
So I want to offer a few thoughts on things. The first is that, while the dissidents obviously pose a physical threat to whoever they choose to target – and, if they’re claiming pizza delivery men as legitimate targets, that’s distressingly large – the dissident “threat” that’s being talked up is not an existential threat to society at large or the peace process or whatever. Even on the micro level, it’s very unlikely that their strategy of tension is going to have many tangible effects – increased security at barracks, and that should be about it.
It’s true that there is a fair amount of discontent in the republican heartlands, but much of that centres around the explosion of crime and anti-social behaviour, and the lack of a robust response to the hoods. It’s also true that there is a smallish but still significant layer of republicans who reject the peace process and all its works, but a large proportion of them – quite likely a majority – are not in favour of a return to armed struggle but of a political opposition, even if they can’t say what that should be. The militarists, at this point, are a minority of a minority of a minority.
At this point, armed dissidence remains a Mickey Mouse concern. Not only are the four or five organisations tiny, but they’re so divided that there are factions within the factions. They are riddled with agents, which is how Hugh Orde knew there was an attack in the offing even though he didn’t know what it would be. And there has been no shift of support towards them – you might say that they aren’t trying to be popular, which is true, but they are actually managing to isolate themselves even more. This is a movement that is not stronger but weaker than five years ago. And they have been trying, and failing, to kill uniforms for quite some time – that they eventually succeeded has been due not to strength on their part but simply to the law of averages.
There’s also the question here of grinding axes. And, I’m sorry to say, it’s hard not to be a little cynical in a few cases. Gordon Brown was over here in a flash. It’s quite likely that he genuinely felt what he was saying, but you can’t help noticing that most days now you hear of one, or two, or four British soldiers being killed in Afghanistan, and he isn’t so keen to flag that up.
There were also the callers on Talk Back, which is usually a good barometer of unionist opinion. What was striking was hearing some punters actually arguing along the lines that the IRA should be brought back for the purpose of wiping out the dissidents. This was a minority position – more of the punters wanted the SAS deployed in West Belfast, which is predictable – but interesting nonetheless.
I’m also interested in how this was turned so quickly into an exercise in Provo-bashing. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having a go at Gerry Adams, but it should be for what he’s said or done, and not for stuff he has no control over. I think, from Gerry’s point of view and bearing in mind his tortuous use of language, that his statement after the Massereene attack was as straightforward as anything you’ll ever get from Gerry. And his argument that the dissident campaign was counterproductive was a perfectly reasonable thing for him to say, bearing in mind that not too long ago his own movement was doing the same thing. For him to have taken a high moral tone would just have made him look like a hypocrite.
But immediately we had the chorus from the media and the unionists that Gerry’s statement was too cold and impersonal, didn’t have enough emotional adjectives, had too much politics in it. And there was, and this is still continuing, a smeary campaign to try and make the Provos responsible for what they haven’t done. A fairly typical example is the inimitable Gail Walker, doing her Skibbereen Eagle turn in the Belfast Telegraph:
If there’s any hedge-trimming by Sinn Fein people will rightly conclude the peace process is just a sham.
I suppose their leaders have just about passed the first hurdle and kept the show on the road. Still, while their condemnation may have satisfied all the legalistic necessities many will feel it has more to do with the political logic of the situation than any deeply felt revulsion.
And many will be waiting for SF backwoodsmen to tip the wink to their natural constituency by humming and hawing, calling for ever more ‘confidence building measures’ or rambles down republican memory lane, droning on about how there can be no purely military solutions to armed republican resistance.
See how this works? The thing is, the unionists know what the dissidents know, that this is a serious pressure point, that it’s very difficult for republicans to side with the state against other republicans, no matter how reprehensible you think their actions are. Now, Martin McGuinness’s photo-op yesterday with Peter Robinson and Chief Constable Orde should have definitively shown what side he is on – his statement was so strong I almost expected Orde to grab his shoulder and say “Steady on mate, don’t go over the top.” And yet, it’s still proving hard to mollify the unionists.
Yes, the dissidents are strategically bankrupt. But they aren’t the only republicans facing serious questions about their strategy.