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Despite strides we have made in local politics, the gunman has not gone away

Northern Ireland has seen many changes over the years, but the intent to murder still exists

By Gail Walker

Even while the political class, the media and the public were digesting the news of Martin McGuinness's retirement from politics, events occurred which reminded us all of the risks our fragile peace runs every time there is stalemate or, in this case, breakdown, at the top.

But Sunday night's attempted murder of a policeman, wounded in the midst of gunfire at a filling station in north Belfast, isn't simply a reminder of the bad old days. Nor is it just more evidence that paramilitaries continue to organise themselves opportunistically in spite of the progress made since the Executive was set up in 2007.

Even more seriously, it's clear that the gunmen are the price we will all pay for any disruption in political stability.

It was once famously said by the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams that "they haven't gone away, you know." Then, that was a sort of reassurance to his supporters that the option of a resort to paramilitaries - the resumption of a war - had not then been forsaken, while strenuous, ultimately successful efforts were being made to put IRA guns beyond use.

What Sunday night demonstrated, though, is that - whether Sinn Fein, the DUP, the PSNI, and the rest of us, like it or not - they haven't gone away. They are also unlikely to go away. Ever.

Almost 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, those of us who can remember that far back now know we are living in the impossible future that Agreement could only imagine as a fantasy. For many back then - those of a nationalist frame of mind - this year might have seen a united Ireland. Or last year, the centenary of the Easter Rising. Or next year.

But soon, sometime around now.

Instead, we have seen McGuinness, a fixture for four decades, one of the architects of that Agreement, retire ill from the scene. Rev Ian Paisley is dead. Peter Robinson has left the political stage. Prime Ministers have come and gone. So has a variety of Taoiseachs.

So much has changed, of course. But what hasn't changed is the intent among some to commit murder in the name of a united Ireland, regardless of the democratically-expressed wishes of the vast majority on the island.

That threat hangs over us all and, while its capacity to deliver harm on a major scale may still be restricted, it is only so because of covert security operations. Successful political institutions have removed practically all of the appetite for violence. However, the fact is that every time the process falters, the gun emerges.

That young policeman was lucky. Bad as the incident was, it might have been so much worse.

The fact is, it was nothing we did, or that the politicians did, which stopped it being worse.

Routine condemnations are no more use now than they ever were, and they were never any use at all. The idea that now, in 2017, we are living in a place where political differences can only be resolved by the gun and the bomb, is simply retarded.

Martin McGuinness's final statement stands, in many ways, as a catalogue of faith in the process, as much as of a certain disappointment at the pace of change. His belief in the ability of successors to "carry forward the work of building institutions that deliver for all our people on the basis of equality, respect and integrity" is a perhaps surprisingly resounding endorsement of the politics of peace.

It is clear that the key building blocks of those institutions are precisely what stirs the hostility of Sunday night's gunmen. There is terror abroad in the world now - trucks being driven into crowds, suicide bombings, lone killers firing at people in airports - which has drawn a consensus against it. Its irrationality has never been more clearly understood.

The fact is that the shooting on Sunday night - just as the murders of David Black, Adrian Ismay, Ronan Kerr and Stephen Carroll - is only distinguishable for us from the manic terror of Nice, Munich, Belgium and Paris because they occur on our doorstep, are more familiar in their patterns and the perpetrators are so obviously 'homegrown'.

In our modern world, the one we share now with the vast populations of the internet, they are simply yet more cordons with police tape, yet more blood, yet more predictable rhetoric of racial purity and yet more egomaniacal would-be killers flying in the face of everything good, kind, useful and neighbourly.

The Executive may fall on the RHI scandal or on the failure to deliver on key policy objectives or dealing with the legacy of the past. It may even fall on the illness of one leader.

But what obviously is lying in wait for all of us, on the other side of an Executive or of a version of power-sharing system; on the other side of some cack-handed politicking gone horribly wrong, or some ghastly brainstorm on one side or the other, is, once again and always, terror. Yet another gunman.

Last week many were struck by the sincerity of Ian Paisley's remarks on Martin McGuinness whom he thanked and said "not only saved lives but made the lives of countless people better".

Now, there are many bereaved people who will not agree with those comments. Indeed, some are outraged.

The remarks also constitute something of a political risk-taking by Paisley himself, who relies on the votes of his constituency. Nevertheless, the comments are a signal of how far we have come. They will give people from elsewhere pause for thought before they stereotype the Ulster Protestant as relentlessly unyielding; just as they will help to nuance the perceptions of the DUP itself.

Likewise, many within republican circles would be made hugely uneasy by Paisley's comments, just as they were by McGuinness's significant gestures of rapprochement during his years in office.

Yes, there is the pain of the past, which remains the pain of the everyday for many. That is a challenge which must not shirked. Yes, there are issues of rights for all. But all those must be achieved on the same basis through movement and a certain generosity.

Over the past decade, and despite all the wishes of the worst among us, we have grown new hearts. We live in a world which can understand the grief of the victim regardless of the circumstances. That's progress. There was a time even the simple equivalence of death was hard to concede here. We still struggle over how to mark those deaths but we do at last recognise the simple common anguish of loss. That's also the world in which Paisley's comments have come to be possible.

The only alternative to that world is the sad, predictable and mournful world of the Sunday night gunmen.

Ian Paisley's comments would have been totally unthinkable 10 years ago; unimaginable 15 years ago.

But they are today's reality, just as much but with much more actual power than those bullets on the forecourt on Sunday night.

Is there any chance at all, for a change, of a life without a gunman in it?

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