Will it take a death before we wake up to dissidents' threat?
Published 10/08/2010 | 09:00
It's only a matter of time before someone is killed" - I tell a foreign friend.
He's inquiring about the bomb attack outside Strand Road police station in Londonderry, why an Army major escaped certain death or serious injury from a booby-trap device under his car in Bangor and why generally Northern Ireland has begun to creep back into his international news headlines for all the worst reasons.
"I thought things were settled in your neck of the woods?" he asks. "Haven't you got the most incredible deal between ex-terrorists and extremists which is supposed to be a model for the rest of the world's trouble-spots to follow?"
"That's right, we have." "So who are these people with the new bombs?"
"They're dissidents," I reply. "What does that mean?" he asks.
"I suppose you could call them ultra-extremists. We're talking about a small group of people who are anti-authority, who want to reject everything.
"They say they want a full united Ireland, whatever that means. These people believe the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein caved in too readily to the British unionists and have become too respectable, like part of the establishment."
"So who are they?" inquires my friend. "If everybody in Ireland has done a deal and they're isolated and ostracised, why aren't they being arrested and thrown in jail? I mean Northern Ireland is a tiny place. It must be fairly easy to identify the troublemakers."
"Yes, there are only a million adults over 18 in Northern Ireland," I say. "And when you take away the people who are non-violent unionists and nationalists and who support all the parties who are sharing power in our historic agreement, it doesn't leave many on the outside looking in. That appears to be where the trouble is coming from."
"So what's the problem?" asks my friend. "Why can't you sort it out? Didn't the IRA shoot anyone who disagreed with them?"
"You're absolutely right." I say. "In the old days, the IRA would have dealt with these people. Even made them disappear. But times have changed."
My friend looks concerned. "So these so-called dissidents must be known to the old IRA people?"
"Yes," I reply. "Well, then, isn't it simple?" says my friend. "If the dissidents are known, shouldn't their old friends just tell the police and leave them to pick them up."
"Sorry," I say. "There's one word in the English language which has haunted this country for generations - 'informer'."
"So you're telling me," says my friend, "that all the major parties in Ireland and in Britain have done a deal which is supported by the vast majority of people in both countries and that this tiny minority of what you call dissidents are trying to wreck it and no one seems to be sorting them out?
"Yes," I say. "In the past week, these people have been described by the former IRA leader and deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness as an 'embarrassment'. The Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, said they were 'totally evil'. Indeed, public figures from whatever political persuasion are reminding us that the dissidents represent nobody and are simply self-destructive."
"Surely the police are on top of this?" persists my friend.
"Possibly," I reply. "But the increase in dissident violence - and the fact that it is spread across Northern Ireland - does not suggest the police are on top."
"So what are you saying?" asks my friend. "That as far as peace and reconciliation is concerned; Northern Ireland isn't all it's made out to be?"
"Yes and no," I reply. "There's no shortage of words of condemnation. No shortage of police officers and politicians telling us the dissidents are outcasts and pariahs. But words alone are not stopping the attacks. Clearly the new police service needs to get a better grip on the problem."
"So," responds my friend, forcefully. "Why is it getting worse? If all of you are at one that these people represent nobody, why do I see more and more reports on my television from Northern Ireland which suggest your violence is returning?"
"I can't really answer that," I reply. "It shouldn't be happening, but the fact is that it is only a matter of time before someone is killed. Maybe that will be the wake-up call."