Graham Spencer: The loyalist endgame
What seems to be fairly clear from the murders of British soldiers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar and police constable Stephen Carroll by the Real IRA and Continuity IRA respectively, as well as those who were seriously injured in the Massereene Barracks attack, is that these actions were carried out with a bigger goal in mind — ending widespread republican support for Sinn Fein.
The attacks reflect an ambition to try and create uncertainty in the minds of those who have up until now supported Sinn Fein's political transformation, divide the republican base and scupper popular consent for the power-sharing Assembly where Sinn Fein are now key players.
No doubt with elections later in the year dissidents will also be seeking to reduce electoral support for Sinn Fein, thereby weakening the argument that politics will advantage the republican cause more than violence.
Commentators who call for Sinn Fein leaders to condemn the murderers merely serve to reinforce this pressure and so underscore dissident republican objectives while deluding themselves that they do the opposite.
That said, what these murders mean in relation to loyalism and any potential loyalist retaliation appears to have been largely overlooked in the heat of media attention. What one might discern from this absence is that loyalists are no longer a necessary consideration for social stability and the security of the peace process.
This is a mistake.
Loyalist reticence towards the murders (so far) signifies a detachment from the traditional stance of reaction which is important. This inaction deserves particular recognition given the possible problems which recent events will create for leaders attempting to drive progressive change within the organisations themselves.
Successful dissident republican activities will now make it much more difficult for leaders who have been tentatively moving discussion towards a positive resolution of the decommissioning question to continue that process persuasively.
From a situation where many members were beginning to see the potential merits of this gesture there now appears little chance of their consent given the threat of further dissident republican activity. But, recent events also offer loyalists the chance to further demonstrate their own transformation and so end any doubts that dissident republicans will be successful in their attempts to see the peace process breakdown.
The traditional position of loyalists reacting to republican agendas has for some time been shifting towards a more introspective engagement with identity, meaning and futures which must continue.
To bring that process to a halt will incite a return to the reactive mode and obstruct the slow progress which has been motivated finally by an internal rather than external desire for change.
But at this point the political class and others should do all they can to support the work of loyalist leaders in maintaining a dynamic of change and non-reaction. This means that the perception of loyalists being viewed as little more than criminal thugs who are peripheral to the peace is misplaced.
What their inaction at this time actually demonstrates is that the continuation of the peace process is dependent on loyalists not reacting and so not behaving in a manner which is consistent with the reactive stereotype. At the same time this also shows us is that loyalism has an important role to play in the development of peace (even by not acting) and so should be seen in terms of political rather than criminal significance. Any positive engagement with loyalists now from political representatives must be continued and strengthened and not just used tactically to help assuage immediate fears and anxieties. To be sure, help with dismantling the military psychology of loyalist organisations is best achieved by absorbing them further into the political apparatus of democratic practice in Northern Ireland not leaving them outside of it or treating them as incidental to it.
The difficulties which Northern Ireland now faces with dissident republicans is also a moment of opportunity when the PSNI can reinforce its legitimacy within republican ranks for community policing, so undercutting dissident republican attempts to make new policing arrangements unworkable.
Yet it is also important to recognise that the effectiveness of policing is more likely to occur if loyalists decide to not act against those seen to carry out recent atrocities.
For the people who represent the political institutions of a peaceful Northern Ireland this provides an opportunity to further build support for loyalist leaders who have managed the transformation and will help weaken the arguments of hard-line elements within loyalism who seek to exert pressure for retaliation.
The non-reaction and reticence of loyalists should be seen as a positive indication of how far loyalism has shifted but a continuation of that journey is the responsibility of others and not just loyalists themselves. Now is a moment to fully and constructively address this problem and simultaneously entrench the peace that a small number so ruthlessly want to shatter.
Graham Spencer is Reader in Politics, Conflict and the Media at the University of Portsmouth. His book The State of Loyalism in Northern Ireland (Palgrave) was |published last year