Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 22 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

PSNI's battle with dissident republicans is carrot and stick realpolitik

Matt Baggott wants politicians to open a debate with dissident republicans; his successor George Hamilton warns them they have no hiding place. Who is right? They both are, says Henry McDonald

The aftermath of a fire bomb attack on the Everglades Hotel in Londonderry earlier this year
The aftermath of a fire bomb attack on the Everglades Hotel in Londonderry earlier this year
The new PSNI Chief Constable Hamilton

As one Chief Constable heads out the door and another one comes in, there were mixed messages from the Police Service of Northern Ireland about what to do about the dissident republican terror threat.

On Sunday the outgoing Matt Baggott appeared to be calling for politicians and wider civil society here to make more of an effort to persuade the dissidents to abandon their "armed struggle".

Less than 24 hours later, his successor George Hamilton was in rather more bellicose form in the pages of the Belfast Telegraph, warning the various armed dissident groups opposed to the peace process and the power-sharing settlement at Stormont that they would get no quarter from the PSNI.

Paradoxically, both men are objectively correct in their apparent pursuit of two different strategies. Taking the latter first, Hamilton's offer of more 'cold steel' for the new IRA, Oghlaigh na hEireann and the Continuity IRA is grounded in realpolitik.

Maghaberry Prison is bursting at the seams with dozens of republican dissident inmates after a range of successful arrest operations against their organisations over the last two years. Major attacks have been thwarted, while the secret war waged – in the main – by the Security Service goes on, with MI5 clearly having the upper hand in terms of human intelligence, technological surveillance and a seemingly bottomless war chest from which to recruit new agents.

However, the success in terms of attacks halted and arrests made also stores up security problems for the near future.

The number of prisoners increases the support network dissident groups need to survive in working-class republican areas.

Moreover, allegations of heavy-handed treatment of those prisoners, including putting some inmates into isolation cells with a view to them being interrogated by MI5 operatives, runs the risk of creating a new prison-struggle battleground.

The claims become rallying calls for the political wings of these movements and increases the support base – especially among young males.

There is no doubt that British penetration of the Provisional IRA was a decisive factor is pushing the mainstream republican movement out of the 'armed struggle' cul de sac and into peaceful, constitutional politics.

By the time of the ceasefires, almost 20 years ago this summer, it is estimated that around one out of every four IRA operatives was working for some branch of the security state.

Yet the secret war alone did not produce the endgame for the IRA's 25-year-long armed campaign. Precisely because the British knew that there was a 'peace party' inside the leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein (often the very same people), they and their Irish counterparts encouraged what appeared to be risky political initiatives aimed at delivering the cessations of 1994.

From the Hume-Adams talks, to Peter Brooke's keynote speech emphasising Britain had no "selfish strategic interest" in remaining in Northern Ireland, to the Downing Street Declaration onwards, set-piece moves were put in place to facilitate that strategic shift within mainstream republicanism. So, given the outcome of this last twin-track joint government policy – the key to all-party talks in one hand and a secret bugging device in the other (to adapt the old Sinn Fein/IRA slogan about Armalites and ballot boxes) – could it work again in relation to the anti-ceasefire republicans?

One thing is for sure: no pan-nationalist front can turn the 21st century diehards around the way Albert Reynolds, Hume, Adams, or the Clinton administration did two decades ago.

The person with least powers of persuasion over the dissidents is, arguably, Martin McGuinness, or any other leading Sinn Fein figure. Ditto the SDLP.

One could argue that the loyalists would probably get a fairer hearing from the anti-peace process factions these days.

There are, of course, other voices in the broad republican family who continue to argue for a 'third way' between an addiction to armed struggle and what they perceive as the sell-out policies of Sinn Fein.

These are the other republican dissidents, the ones who, while refusing to buy into Sinn Fein's narrative, also now regard an armed campaign as politically, morally and strategically wrong.

These are voices such as ex-IRA hunger Gerard Hodgins, who in The Guardian earlier this year warned the armed dissidents that they were under 24/7 scrutiny from a British state that had an unrivalled financial and technological advantage over them.

There are other voices, such as the ex-IRA prisoner and writer Anthony McIntyre, whose blog, The Pensive Quill, contains some of the sharpest critiques anywhere of continuing armed struggle.

These voices are the ones the armed dissidents are most likely to heed in the long run if, as Matt Baggott suggests, there is already a conversation going on about the efficacy and morality of continuing violence.

It's odd that, of late, voices such as McIntyre's and others writing on The Pensive Quill have been demonised and falsely portrayed as enemies of peace – particularly over McIntyre's role as chief researcher on the Boston College Belfast Project and the IRA taped testimonies.

Because, if society really wants to open up a space for some – though certainly not all – of the dissidents to embrace politics, then it is voices like McIntyre and others who need further amplification.

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