Engaging with IRA factions is still the only path to peace
The dialogue needed to bring the dissidents in from the cold cannot be left to republicans alone, argues Brian Rowan
Twenty years ago, the republican peace project was dismissed by many politicians, by the worlds of security and intelligence and across chunks of the media.
It took John Hume to step outside that frame and open a dialogue with Gerry Adams on a new Ireland.
And those who argued against such an initiative, who argued that Adams, McGuinness and the IRA could not be persuaded, should think in the here and now about the worth of a conversation, or talks, with dissidents.
It would not be a negotiation, or giving them something, but rather an effort to persuade them to stop.
In the absence of such a dialogue, MI5 is building at its Palace Barracks headquarters in Holywood. It now houses 500 Security Service and PSNI personnel; part of their task is to listen in on that dissident world, trying to predict the next move and work out how to stop it.
But in the thinking of the dissidents, that HQ and those who work there are part of the continuing British military presence – part of something that hasn't changed and part of their argument for continuing with armed actions. Security and intelligence will contain that threat, but it won't make it go away. That requires a different approach, one that thinks outside the box and, in terms of talking to terrorists, thinks the unthinkable.
Adams knows these talking initiatives are essential. Just a few days ago, he argued: "There is now a democratic and peaceful way to bring about Irish unity. There is no reason whatever for any group to engage in, or promote or support, violent actions."
And he made clear that he was speaking out to those "usually described as dissident" – linking his argument for an end to armed actions to the Sinn Fein campaign for a border poll.
"This is a phase of political activity that is about persuasion; it's about democratic conversations and winning support for Irish unity."
Unionists may never be persuaded, but they certainly won't be moved by the bombs and bullets of the dissidents. How to bring those actions to an end is the challenge. And that asks for a talking initiative across the broad nationalist/republican community.
It is about surrounding the dissidents in a dialogue. Look at their armed actions. Those operating in that intelligence world see no evidence of new arms supplies.
They know the key leadership figures across the different groups, including the new IRA coalition and the faction that calls itself Oglaigh na hEireann.
And the more those groups try to do in terms of armed activity, the more they compromise themselves.
You see it in a typical pattern of activity since the murder of prison officer David Black at the start of November. Since then, a bomb fell from a car driven by a soldier.
Weeks later, a Semtex device capable of piercing armour was seized in Londonderry and arrests made. Then a police officer discovered a bomb under his car in east Belfast.
There was another botched attack on a police officer at his home in Omagh and in recent days rocket-launchers were seized and arrests made in Co Tipperary.
The vast bulk of dissident activity fails because they are both known and predictable. And their wars have no prospect of succeeding.
And this is the argument for a dialogue – talks that make clear there is room for both a different and a second opinion within the republican community, but no space or support for armed activity.
It cannot be a conversation that is left just to Sinn Fein and the dissidents. That wouldn't work. It needs a wider involvement – the SDLP, the Irish Government, the Church and those with community influence, including the GAA.
And why try? For the same reason John Hume did almost 20 years ago. It's about trying to save lives – not waiting for the next dissident 'success', the next killing, before taking the risk of doing the unthinkable.
The challenge is to talk – and sooner rather than later.