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Belfast murder bid on police officer troubling but not cause to fear return of past violence

By Malachi O'Doherty

Shots fired from a car at a police officer suggest an improvised operation.

The Provisional IRA, at its height, had an expertise in ambush and retreat that makes last night's attack look relatively amateurish. For which we may be thankful.

The first impression here is of a gunman grasping an opportunity that presented itself, rather than participating in a methodically prepared plan with backup and a prearranged safe house to clean up in.

When the Provisionals chose to murder someone, we know that they would have had couriers to deliver the weapons to the attack team and retrieve them; they would have had a base to which the gunmen could repair, to clean up and change their clothes.

Shooting from a car seems sloppy. With bad luck on their part, there might have been closed circuit cameras overlooking the scene, and witnesses to spot a registration number.

That is the one consolation about the dissident republicans, that they have been so incompetent, though tooled up, not just with guns but with sophisticated mortars. Last night, when the news went out of a direct assassination attempt on a police officer, the first thought that occurred to many was, 'Have they upped their game; are they getting better at this?' First indications are that they are not.

But many will have wondered also if the political context made this murder attempt more likely. We have a collapsed Assembly with little real prospect of it being restored, and, if one follows the cliches of past discussion of paramilitary motivation, then here there is a suggestion that a 'political vacuum' gave murder a new potential.

A calculating dissident might be thinking that blood on the streets or dead police officers might so rile the unionists that they would dig in against the Sinn Fein concessions.

Some might be so reminded of what the Provos themselves did that they would suspect their hand in this, or at least worry that their own constituents would resent attempts now at reconciliation.

People should keep their nerve now, and remind themselves that the dissidents have been trying stunts like this and worse, routinely and generally failing.

They may want to score some hits during the deadlock, may even hope to win some provisional republicans over to their way of doing things while the political project of Sinn Fein looks like a failure.

But the simple fact is, they are not very good at this. And one injured police officer, lucky to be alive after such an horrific attack, while warranting our sympathy and concern, does not amount to a return to the bad old days. Not yet anyway.

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