Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Why we are still cursed by the shadow of the gunman

In spite of decommissioning, we have yet to see the gun taken out of Irish politics, writes Alan Murray

Dare we hope all the guns have gone away now that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) has confirmed that the "Shoukri paramilitary element" handed over all the armaments it said it had in its possession?

Unfortunately, just when you thought it was safe to venture into the paramilitary undergrowth, a degree of caution must still be exercised. Things are undoubtedly better now the north Belfast UDA element has been effectively decommissioned. The announcement last week by the IICD that the INLA and the Official Republican Movement had joined in the spirit of weapons-discarding adds to the optimism.

The UDA in south-east Antrim indicated it too had surrendered further weaponry to the IICD, but there remain, apart from the dissident republicans and their hopeless agendas, a few rumps of recalcitrant paramilitaries who just wouldn't say 'yes' to General de Chastelain.

The Loyalist Volunteer Force in mid-Ulster, particularly in and around the Antrim area, is reputed to possess a volume of high-grade modern guns which could be turned on republicans or loyalists.

North of Belfast, they nestle uncomfortably between the UDA's decommissioned south-east Antrim brigade and its not-so-decommissioned Londonderry/north Antrim brigade, raising concerns that should the LVF's crime empire in Antrim tread on the toes of either of its neighbouring UDA groupings, then difficulties could arise.

In both Antrim and mid-Ulster there are also hostile UVF elements around the remaining LVF outposts - and that is without adding Johnny Adair's ambitions into the mix.

On the republican side, the heavily-armed Sean Garland Official IRA faction has so far refused to decommission their weapons, believed to include assault rifles and handguns.

The risk of friction with the so-called 'dissident' republicans is something that can't be dismissed.

Should one shoot up the other's pub, or similar protected business venture, or slap a few faces on a Saturday night, then the guns could come out again - republican feuds have kicked off over lesser misdemeanours.

For some time to come, those who say 'no' within the ranks of the dissident republican fraternity will endure and seek to establish a spurious political legitimacy through the weapons they continue to utilise.

Their declared number one enemy now may be Catholic police officers drawn from the nationalist community, but the likes of Johnny Adair - should he return to roam Antrim and beyond - would pose an irresistible target.

More murders and murder-bids are inevitable from dissident republicans, but greater security around those with the profile of Constable Peadar Heffron will frustrate them and, eventually, they'll move on to easier targets and, perhaps, loyalists.

Remarkably, given the turmoil within the UDA over the last three years, when north Belfast appeared on the brink of being engulfed in internecine violence, loyalist paramilitaries are now largely becalmed.

The decommissioned terror organisations nevertheless remain structurally intact and active in their various crime operations, but by and large, they remain disinclined to brandish guns and strut their stuff as they used to do.

It would be foolish, though, to suggest that every gun has been decommissioned from the Provisionals across the spectrum to the UVF and the UDA. Every single one of those organisations, you can be sure, has a limited capacity kept in reserve for the 'worst-case scenario', as they might term it - be it a local difficulty or an internecine one.

For instance, if dissident republicans elected to take out Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness, would their own leaders survive unscathed?

Similarly, if Johnny Adair came back to generate similar mischief on the loyalist side, would he escape retribution?

It wouldn't be right, but could it be stopped? The reality is that, unfortunately, the shadow of the gunman will loom over our society for some time to come.

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