When will they ever learn? After nearly 4,000 deaths, 10 times that number injured and maimed, and countless others psychologically scarred....
can there be many who have not got the message, heavily endorsed in referenda north and south, that the Irish people want to live together in peace, and to leave whatever problems there might be to resolution by the ballot rather than the bomb or the bullet?
Not, it appears, the Real IRA which on Saturday night murdered two soldiers in an attack on Massereene Barracks in Antrim, and seriously injured four others, including two civilians whose crime was to be delivering pizzas to the Army.
The attack was as indiscriminate as the murders were callous, but the fact that they happened at all has profoundly shocked the community, and may yet have political repercussions. The shock has been magnified for having come after a long period of peace. It is 14 years since the first IRA ceasefire; 12 years since the last British soldier, Gunner Restorick, was murdered by sniper-fire in Bessbrook; the murder rate has gone down from almost 300 in the worst years to almost zero.
It is not, however, as if such an attack was entirely unexpected. Dissident republicans have made no secret of their intent to murder members of the PSNI, and have made direct attacks on at least three. In recent weeks the chief constable has reiterated warnings of their capability to do so. The security risk from this quarter has been upgraded to ‘severe'.
In the past week it has been disclosed that the chief constable has secured the assistance of five members of military intelligence in order to improve his capacity to secure intelligence on dissident activity and to maintain surveillance. The unanimous condemnation from the political parties indicates the political isolation of the dissidents — but that of course is not their game. Their purpose is single-mindedly anti-political, to bring down the institutions of the Agreement and to produce the chaos in which they hope to thrive. They include former splinter groups, and those Provisionals who refused to follow the leadership into politics.
They are concentrated largely in the areas of greatest opposition to decommissioning and the acceptance of policing. There are people, too, to whom their familiarity with the gun gave a sense of their own importance and a place in the community. For some, politics does not make the adrenalin flow. Others do not relish the comparative anonymity and loss of status that comes with peace. There are young people too, who have not yet had to count the cost of conflict.
The danger would be if disillusionment with lack of progress on the political front were to drive less than totally committed Sinn Fein supporters into their ranks. The lesson for the mainstream parties is plain — they must stick together and make a go of the political arrangements. Sinn Fein need to hold their nerve in support of policing, and to go beyond rhetoric in encouraging their supporters to co-operate by providing information and intelligence, where they have it, which might lead to the apprehension of the murderers and their accomplices. The DUP, for their part, need to discover that there is more to politics than appearing to wrong-foot Sinn Fein on every possible occasion. The great prize to be won is not the exercise of patronage in a local administration, or a return to old Stormont attitudes, but to see an end to the physical force tradition in republican politics. They cannot do this without the help of Sinn Fein.
All of which makes the transfer of responsibility for policing and criminal justice to the Northern Assembly the more urgent. The bill is under discussion at Westminster, and passage should not be delayed through the erection of additional financial hurdles, through a demand for extra money which the Treasury, in the present climate, is unlikely to provide.
The SDLP, no less than Sinn Fein, find themselves out on a limb, given their vociferous objections to the Chief Constable having enlisted the help of military intelligence, and for not having told the Policing Board (which would have been the equivalent of public advertisement). It can hardly be denied that the murders have, tragically, vindicated his judgment. There is, it is true, a nasty history of security force activity in this field which inevitably causes problems for the nationalist parties. There are allegations of collusion in cases like Pat Finucane and Billy Wright, which have been found worthy of inquiry, and which are too numerous not to have a basic substratum of truth in them. Nevertheless the answer is not to eschew intelligence-gathering and surveillance. Criminals rarely give themselves up, neither are they discovered by intellectual abstractions, but by the willingness of confederates to inform, or the ability of the police to penetrate and infiltrate.
What is necessary is that it should be intelligently and proportionately deployed, within the law and carefully controlled, and there is nothing in Hugh Orde's track record to suggest that he would not be capable of managing the function in this way.
The dissidents are a tiny minority with, as yet, limited capacity. The vast majority, who only want peace, can defeat them by refusing to panic. They can also provide the information and the evidence which would put murderers behind bars. Whether they are willing to do so remains to be seen.
Meantime those who are unable, or unwilling to learn might reflect that in Pete Seeger's song, all roads lead ultimately to the graveyard.