Martin McGuinness may dismiss them as unrepresentative micro-groups, but as the Assembly reconvenes today for the new session, he is acutely aware of the dissidents’ capacity to destabilise the Executive, writes Alan Murray
The Real IRA has unmistakably thrown down the political gauntlet to the Deputy First Minister. In his own political backyard, Martin McGuinness today faces a militant republican element that might once have savoured his words — but now flings them back in his face, especially over support for the police.
Friday’s attacks at the homes of relatives of PSNI officers in Londonderry is a further pointer to the growing breadth of terrorising options dissident republicans have at their disposal — and are prepared to exploit.
The large Forkhill bomb that would undoubtedly have claimed lives and caused huge physical destruction clearly illustrates the immense danger to life that the dissidents pose.
Departed Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde rightly described the Real IRA’s Meigh checkpoint as a “stunt”, but what he omitted to admit was the glaring shortfall in his force’s ability to thwart these activities in the border area.
Politically, the actions of the Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann over the last two weeks have demonstrated that the nervous power-sharing Executive has greater enemies to contend with than point-scoring opponents in the Stormont chamber.
In some ways, the refusal by the DUP to accept the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Executive is a financial let-off for sorely-burdened public finances.
It allows a financial and political breathing-space while those currently charged with combating the dissidents on both sides of the border take the steps to achieve the successes that will dismantle their primary structures.
They are few in number and are mere micro-groups, Gerry Kelly, in particular, often tells his public — and he is possibly right.
But the Forkhill bomb and the audacious Meigh roadcheck prove that, however few in numbers they are, the Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann have the weapons, materials and — crucially — the know-how at their disposal to inflict another Omagh, or another Warrenpoint atrocity.
There is no doubting that most of us want to move away from the security agenda and witness our locally elected politicians rectify the shambles they have created in education, rein in indefensible civil service costs and put an end to overlapping and incompetence in public administration.
But, while those who would wish to emulate Martin McGuinness’s former incarnation, in a now hopefully bygone era, are throwing down the gauntlet to the Deputy First Minister in his own constituency.
And as election time approaches, and Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister fosters doubts about the competence of the Executive in handling elementary matters like the welfare of police officers and civilians forced from their homes by terrorists, then more fissures will appear in the Stormont facade. Fortunately last week, the message got through to Margaret Ritchie that, as a society, we will not tolerate police officers — especially those most under threat — being effectively discarded in a squabble over departmental funding.
We are a tiny economic region of the United Kingdom, heavily dependent on subsidy from Britain for most of our financial infrastructure. Every penny the Executive has at its disposal must be scrupulously administered, which means that extravagant costs at Stormont must be eliminated.
Why, for instance, does the office of OFMDFM need 391 staff and a budget increasing year-on-year? Is this just political empire-building?
As the dissidents stick crude bombs under cars belonging to the relatives of police officers around Londonderry and threaten more police families, our politicians at Stormont need to demonstrate clearly that they are worth the money they are demanding.
Effective, efficient government won’t stop the dissidents in their tracks, but it will stabilise the Executive and send the message far and wide that Stormont can deliver and that murderous bombing campaigns will ultimately founder on its steps.