The shadow of the gunman still runs long and dark across Ireland on this November day in the 21st century.
We live in hope that, somehow, a combined social, political, and security effort will stop republican dissidents in their violent tracks. We know in our heart of hearts how unlikely that is.
Why do we know that? Because, tragically, political agreement on this island cannot encompass everyone. Throughout the decades of violence, from the 1920s to more recent times, there have been dissidents, arguing, fighting, maiming or killing one another. We have political dissidents and violent dissidents and we probably always will have. Ian Paisley, himself, was the loudest political dissident of all, refusing to accept the Good Friday Agreement and campaigning to discredit and destroy it before his amazing volte-face.
Since then, his place has been taken by Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice. The word ‘dissident’ is not exclusive to any one side. The TUV is not threatening to kill anyone, but it could still destabilise Stormont power-sharing more effectively than republican violence.
We can hardly be surprised that Oglaigh na hEireann, the 32 County Sovereignty movement, the Real or Continuity IRA are in existence given the tumultuous changes brought about by the republican leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Those of us who could not stand the procrastination of Sinn Fein at the negotiating table can now see more merit in such tactics. We now begin to recognise how far Adams and McGuinness actually travelled, the lengths to which they went to preserve a united front and the awful spectre of what might have been had they failed to convince their republican followers that a deal was worth doing.
The term ‘dissident republicans’ is really a media invention. The spectrum of ‘dissent’ stretches from stone-throwing teenagers on Catholic housing estates in Craigavon to veteran republicans who, at one point or another from the mid-1980s, refused to accept Sinn Fein’s involvement in the peace process. Uncoordinated and small in number as the various groups undoubtedly are, they still represent a dangerous social spread across the generation gap. The question is how to thwart them.
So-called ‘recreational’ rioters are soft targets for paramilitary recruitment. The big challenge for community leaders is to offer an alternative distraction. The battle for the hearts and minds of these youngsters must be won by the good guys. Every encouragement and support must be given to those who are currently active in various neighbourhoods, singling out the ringleaders and malcontents and trying to wean them away from trouble.
Then there is security activity, ranging from undercover MI5 work to lines of police officers confronting rioters at dead of night. Both are necessary, but both are also dangerously capable of making a bad situation worse.
We know from past experience that it takes only the insensitive handling of an informant, or heavy-handed police behaviour, to swing the sympathy of a neighbourhood behind the mob.
Routing out the troublemakers runs immeasurable risks for the police. Nightly confrontations are no answer because eventually something goes wrong to threaten or undermine the essential requirement of the police to maintain community respect |and confidence.
When all is said and done, only the community from which the dissidents have sprung can truly defeat them. The authorities in the Republic have a key role.
Old-style, outdated republicanism is still at large down south in many counties.
It must be countered and confronted at every corner by political persuasion as much as by covert security operations.
Unionists can huff and puff all they like. It is not they nor the PSNI nor MI5 who will defeat republican dissidents. It is the mettle of modern-day nationalism, north and south, which is being tested.
This battle of wills cannot be lost or the entire community will suffer even more. What is at stake is the very basis of the Good |Friday Agreement: equality of citizenship in a new Northern Ireland within a new Anglo-Irish framework in return for an end to conflict. The republican leadership promised peace for power-sharing.
The onus is on Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein, along with the SDLP and anyone else with influence in the republican and nationalist communities, to deliver.
It is looking increasingly doubtful that they can. In those circumstances, Northern Ireland is now at risk of a step back.