The killings of two soldiers at Antrim is a challenge to every community in Northern Ireland and to people in the Republic as well. While initial condemnation and abhorrence of the Massereene murders has come from everyone, we know from our experience of the Troubles that condemnation is simply not enough.
It takes cross-community commitment to isolate gunmen and bombers. It takes political determination as well as security force endeavour to beat terrorism and it requires all of us to play our part and not to equivocate or find excuses for not joining in the battle against evil.
I would like to think we have learned from the past and that full support will be given now. The days and weeks ahead will show if that is the case. Will the united front presented yesterday by local people of all denominations in Antrim become an established and ongoing reaction across the rest of Northern Ireland?
Will the condemnation of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness be reflected in a commitment from the wider republican community to isolate and reject the so-called dissidents of the Continuity and Real IRA? To what extent will these organisations feel they have nowhere to hide, no safe houses, no guarantee that someone somewhere will not inform the authorities of their appalling actions?
These are the questions that will have to be answered in the aftermath of Saturday’s brutality. We have come too far for there to be any doubt in our answers yet the history of the past 40 years suggests differently.
How come, for example, that those who bombed Omagh are not locked up for life by now? How come, too, that there are many other hundreds of unsolved crimes over the past 40 years for which people within every section of our society still harbour vital information. How come? Because some people on this island can build an impenetrable wall of silence around the activities of murderers without even the slightest pang of conscience.
The dissidents present a number of challenges. First to Sinn Fein whose authority and ability to command the respect and support of the republican community is also under threat along with that of the lives of soldiers and police officers. Secondly there is the challenge to Stormont collectively because if the parties, unionist, nationalist and republican, cannot stand together in the face of this threat, then the very existence of the Assembly will be in question again.
Thirdly, the security forces must demonstrate swiftly that they have sufficient inside knowledge to catch the killers, if not before they can strike again, then certainly before they have any chance to unsettle Northern Ireland at large.
If Sinn Fein really is the voice of the republican community in Ireland, as most observers believe it to be, then it is hard to see how the dissidents can operate freely without detection or arrest. Yet from past experience, we are entitled to be more than a little sceptical that the problem will be solved just so simply, not least after last week’s arguments over the use of undercover agents. This row now looks particularly unedifying in the aftermath of Antrim.
The shootings have provided justification, if ever it were needed, for undercover intelligence-gathering. But the very fact that there was such acrimony last week shows how difficult it is to establish a consensus of political backing for the security forces in whatever steps are needed to stop the new terrorist threat.
The shootings place the republican leadership of Adams and McGuinness on the horns of a deadly dilemma. On the one hand they oppose the use of undercover forces. On the other, they want the dissident threat neutered. They must know from their personal experience within the IRA that intelligence-gathering is key to achieving their goal. It will be interesting to see how Adams and McGuinness cope with this dilemma in the days ahead. That Northern Ireland is back in the international headlines because of an act of terrorism is an embarrassment to the entire island. North and south share common worries over jobs and finances. We also share a common bond that we do not need violence in our lives again. We have come too far to allow the prize of peace to slip from our grasp now. That must be the message of political, church and community leaders everywhere. I hope it is and that after all we have been through; there are no more walls of silence lurking in our midst.