Politics alone will not end dissident violence
The devolution of policing and justice will not deter republican renegades. Only a coherent counter-insurgency strategy will defeat them, argues Henry McDonald
Perhaps it was just a coincidence that the PSNI announced last week that they made a record number of drugs seizures in Londonderry.
Because, up until the police trumpeted their success against the dealers in Derry, it had been armed republicans who were stealing the headlines in the so-called 'war against drugs', meting out their own brand of rough 'justice' the way they had always done so.
Last year, more than a dozen men were targeted by a shadowy organisation called Republican Action Against Drugs in a series of so-called 'punishment shootings' which, in some cases, inevitably targeted as many innocent people as they did the supposedly guilty.
The PSNI revelation that almost £1m-worth of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine had been seized in Derry was clearly part of a strategy to reassure the public that the police were countering the dealers and making tangible in-roads on their profits.
On a macro level, the Chief Constable Matt Baggott has gone out of his way since last Tuesday's vote to create a new Justice Ministry to politically isolate the republican dissidents and cut them off from the community.
During an interview with the BBC Hearts and Minds programme a few days after the vote, the PSNI boss stated that communal backing for the new department would further emasculate those republicans opposed to the power-sharing settlement.
Like Secretary of State Shaun Woodward, Baggott transmits the message that the devolution of policing and justice powers will somehow degrade these armed groups' ability to wage 'armed struggle' - particularly if republican communities are now on the side of the police.
One of his most telling remarks during that interview was that the armed campaigns by the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oghlaigh na hEireann were wholly different from the one conducted by the Provisional IRA from 1969 to 1997.
The Chief Constable seemed to be implying that the PIRA campaign was a sustained, regular, often 24/7, phenomenon, whereas the terror triumvirate of anti-ceasefire republicanism today cannot come close to matching the latter's tempo of terrorism.
At one level, Baggott's assertion is correct: the campaigns of the CIRA, RIRA and ONH are sporadic and infrequent, more akin to the on/off violence of ETA in the 21st century.
Moreover, the British state no longer creates the conditions for the kind of mass movement that the Provisionals became - thanks to the lethal errors of repressive legislation, internment, Bloody Sunday and later the criminalisation programme in the H-Blocks. The mistakes in state policy drove many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young nationalists into the PIRA's ranks.
However, there is one critical absent element in the discourse among police, politicians and commentators regarding the dissident threat - ideology.
When the Cold War ended in 1989 the American intellectual Francis Fukuyama declared that history had ended.
Yet, as the shock of 9/11 and the subsequent rise of Islamist terror proves, history is not over - nor do some on the planet see the liberal democratic model as the endgame of human existence. The Balkan Wars of the 1990s demonstrated the enduring power (and danger to humanity) of ethnic nationalism, of bitter communal memory and of historic grievances - many of the latter more imagined than real.
Ireland is fortunate not to have the same depth of ethnic national rage which tore apart the former Yugoslavia and which unthinkably led to the return of genocide to Europe five decades after the Shoah.
Nonetheless, there remains an embittered, but dedicated minority (call them 'micro-groups' if you want) who won't be satisfied by the ambiguous but all-too-human compromises the parties make at Stormont every day.
It is easy to dismiss those who shoot soldiers and police officers, put car-bombs outside courthouses and stage riots in their home town as apolitical criminals or recreational violence-seekers.
Of course, there will always be serial troublemakers out to cause nihilistic mayhem. But the core cadre of those currently executing terrorist violence are only different in scale from those that went before them, but finally came to their senses and abandoned 'armed struggle'.
Devolving policing and justice powers, and appointing David Ford to the new ministry, certainly moves politics forward in one massive leap. Yet it will not deter the dissidents who will in the end only be countered with security measures combined with the most important counter-insurgency strategy of all - money.
No one likes to say it too loudly, but perhaps Sir Hugh Orde was onto something in his controversial "acceptable level of violence" speech.
The former Chief Constable was telling us to get used to the idea of a dangerous band of republicans who will continue to do what they know best.
They are no more likely to succeed than their predecessors in the Provisional IRA and INLA, but the allure of ideology means they are going to be with us for some time to come.