Peace is comprehensive, not complete
Published 09/03/2009 | 07:49
So how could it happen, everyone is asking: how could two soldiers die violently in a Northern Ireland which has a power-sharing political settlement and which is supposed to be at peace?
The answer lies in the fact that Belfast's peace is comprehensive but not complete. Well over 90% of the population supports the peace process, the mainstream IRA is defunct and most loyalist groups are quiet.
Yet a few republican backwoodsmen remain committed to the ancient belief long discarded by the old IRA and the modern-day Sinn Fein that bombings and shootings will one day force a British withdrawal.
The weekend attack is just the latest in a series launched with the aim of killing members of the security forces. It has taken the dissidents dozens of attacks to achieve their ambition, and they will now be celebrating the murder of the two soldiers.
The groups are in effect splinters from the old IRA, but are tiny in comparison to it. No one believes they have the capacity to maintain a serious and sustained campaign.
Martin McGuinness described them as “micro-groups who are living in cloud cuckoo land” and appealed to young people not to get involved in “these pointless activities”.
But they can kill, as they demonstrated at the weekend, and they have the capacity to stage occasional bomb attacks which can also lead to deaths. The weekend incident was just one of dozens. In the last two years they have been responsible for four deaths, but these have attracted little attention since they have arisen from internal fall-outs over power, money or control of weapons.
Four or five splinter groups are in existence, the most notorious of which is the Real IRA which was responsible for the 1998 Omagh bombing in which 29 people died. This group has also claimed responsibility for Saturday’s killings.
The authorities have for several years been locked in a major battle, usually undercover and therefore invisible, with the violent dissidents.
This has resulted in many security force successes, evident in frequent seizures of weapons and explosives. Almost 100 dissident suspects are in prison in both parts of Ireland, either convicted or on remand.
Yet despite these developments, police regularly issue warnings that the dissident threat is dangerous and growing, a point which the weekend incident demonstrated in the most tragic and lethal way.
Recently some republicans and others involved in the peace process suggested opening contact with dissidents, but so far there is no sign that they are interested in negotiations or any political approach.
The maverick groups include a number of republican veterans, but although the dissidents claimed most members were ex-IRA, both police and republicans say the bulk of members are young men.
The weekend killings will represent a real setback for the efforts of the authorities to civilianise policing as much as possible, a painstaking process which has been going on for years.
Security has been greatly reduced, with the sight of soldiers on the streets now a rarity, no regular army patrolling and the closure of many security bases.
The weekend killings will mean a complete review of security which will inevitably include the re-introduction of more rigorous measures, stepping up the never-ending battle against those trying to drag Northern Ireland back to war.