What is one to make of the threat to the life of Martin McGuinness? Are we underplaying the danger posed by dissident republicans or underestimating the extent of support for their views?
I can recall unionist leaders, in the Sixties saying loyalist groups had no standing or support within the Protestant community. I can recall nationalist leaders north and south of the border, saying the same about the IRA and we know how wrong they were.
But, of course, times have changed. We appear to have learned to live with one another, to respect one another’s politics, religion and culture; to have reached a point in the peace process where there is no going back; to have solved one of the world’s most insoluble problems.
It would be utopian to think we had achieved political perfection in the one decade since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In reality, we are only kidding ourselves if we believe that. On the contrary, it may be that we have reached a dangerous point on a marathon journey which may take a generation to complete, if indeed we ever do breast the finishing tape.
Which brings me to the dissident republicans. I was at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Dublin on the Sunday afternoon in 1986 when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness finally pushed the dissidents over the brink. I can recall having a mug of coffee with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, the former Sinn Fein president in the Mansion House cafeteria. A small bespectacled figure with a pioneer pin in his lapel, he bitterly condemned Adams and McGuinness. It was clear the gulf between his old and their new guard was unbridgeable. Later, as Adams and McGuinness looked on from the platform, Ó Brádaigh led a group of delegates in a protest walk-out, never to return. At that moment, today’s dissident republicanism was born. That memory returned when the two soldiers and a police officer were killed in March. And in the light of the threats to Martin McGuinness and others, the legacy of 1986 is haunting Northern Ireland again.
There is a tendency to brush news we don’t wish to hear under our peaceful ‘home sweet home’ carpets. This is understandable because the last thing we need on top of swine flu and the credit crunch is any prospect of a return to violence. The simplest way to dispense with the dissidents would be to dismiss them as ‘a bunch of cranks ... with absolutely no support from anyone criminals and hoods outcasts of society pariahs of the people’.
We all know that language. It has been used many times in the past to describe and dismiss violent groups whose potential to kill and maim turned out to be far more barbarous than any one could have imagined.
Why should dissident republicanism exist? Why should it have any support? And what kind of people might be behind it? These are questions which we may not wish to hear or pose and which opinion polls cannot answer.
Dissident republicanism is still in our midst because it is buried deep in the body politic of this island, so deep among some families that it cannot be exhumed and cremated as we might like it to be.
It’s hard to put an exact figure on how many republican families there are in Northern Ireland. I would guess at least 50,000 households, many with an entrenched tradition going back generations. The support for Sinn Fein at recent elections suggests these households reject ‘physical force republicanism’.
The worry for us all would be if that support were wavering in any way. Why should it? Well, I can think of one or two reasons.
The paramilitaries of the past have moved on to a new privileged life in the eyes of some of those who followed them through the depths of violence.
There is also a new teenage underclass in places such as Craigavon which springs from a republican community.
These youngsters may have no great loyalty to what they see as an aging and detached style of republicanism embedded at Stormont. Might the current Sinn Fein leadership have gone too far ahead of some of its grassroots?
How are today’s well-groomed Sinn Fein ministers and MLAs perceived in rural republican border counties of Ulster and in impoverished urban neighbourhoods north and south?
And what of Martin McGuinness’s ‘traitor’ comment?
I am reminded of an interview I once had with the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, who was often pilloried for being too traditionally nationalist. When I put this accusation to him, he replied: “When I finish speaking on Sunday morning and step down from the pulpit, and look over my shoulder, I am always relieved to see that the pews are still full and no one has left. Otherwise, my message is lost and my influence has gone. You can never travel too far ahead of the flock.”
The threat to Martin McGuinness’s life and the abuse directed at his family is a defining moment for the peace process. Battles for the hearts and minds of republicanism in the past were settled simply — at the point of a gun — as we know from the bloody feuds which brought so many killings during the era of the Troubles. How this one will end, we do not know. Utterly futile and pointless? Yes, of course. But one lesson from the history of ‘physical force’ republicanism is that just when you think it has gone away, it comes back in another guise.
We are not out of the woods yet. It is beholden on unionists, nationalists and republicans to realise this and to choose their words and actions very carefully. The same I would suggest goes for those charged with security duties and with countering the threat posed by the dissidents.
The forthcoming European and Westminster elections should tell us more about the popularity of Sinn Fein. As of now, I doubt if we can be sure whether the barometer hand of Irish republicanism is settled or quivering a little.