Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Diehards will carry on in stubborn bid to prevent 'normalisation'

PSNI officers and Army bomb disposal experts escaped injury when a bomb exploded in Wattle Bridge. A hoax was used to lure them into the area when the second device exploded yesterday
PSNI officers and Army bomb disposal experts escaped injury when a bomb exploded in Wattle Bridge. A hoax was used to lure them into the area when the second device exploded yesterday
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

An easy analysis of the attempt to kill police officers along the Fermanagh border is to blame it on Brexit or the political paralysis at Stormont.

That's not only lazy, it's wrong - on both counts.

PSNI officers and Army bomb disposal experts escaped injury when a bomb exploded in Wattle Bridge. A hoax was used to lure them into the area when the second device exploded yesterday.

Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin blamed the Continuity IRA or New IRA, and made a direct appeal to our politicians to make progress.

He noted that devolution had now been suspended two-and-a-half years, there was Brexit uncertainty and tensions over bonfires, legacy issues were unresolved, and there had been five attempts to murder police officers this year.

"When you add all that up, there is a time to question what type of society we want to live in," he said. "We now need action and as a society, led by our politicians, to absolutely set out not just our condemnation to these people but to work collectively together."

Few would dispute his sentiments, but here's the problem. Dissident republicans have killed two PSNI officers, two soldiers and two prison officers in the past decade. The attacks all occurred when devolution was fully functioning.

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The deaths of Stephen Carroll, Ronan Kerr, Patrick Azimkar, Mark Quinsey, David Black and Adrian Ismay cannot be blamed on the absence of government at Stormont.

Nor can they be linked to a lack of condemnation either. Standing beside the then Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde and DUP First Minister Peter Robinson, the late Martin McGuinness denounced those who gunned down the two soldiers at Massereene in 2009.

He branded them "traitors to the island of Ireland".

It didn't make the slightest difference to dissident republicans then. And the words of Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O'Neill or Michelle Gildernew won't now.

The dissidents are undoubtedly heartened by the political stalemate at Stormont. But if the DUP and Sinn Fein reached a deal to restore power-sharing today, it would have zero effect on the dissident campaign, which would continue regardless.

"We have people in our society who wake up every day and their motivation is to try and kill police, sometimes prison officers or Army personnel," Deputy Chief Constable Martin said.

And while partition remains, that will unfortunately always be the case. There is no great secret as to what motivates those behind the current republican campaign. It's the same as ever - 'Brits Out'.

Declaring its formation in 2012, the New IRA said: "The necessity of armed struggle in pursuit of Irish freedom can be avoided through the removal of the British military presence in our country." That could easily have been a Provisional statement from the 1970s or 1980s.

Yet despite yesterday's attack, the PSNI is not dealing with a security situation spiralling out of control. Dissident republicans have pockets of support in Derry, Lurgan, north and west Belfast, and along the border.

They are capable of sporadic attacks but they haven't been able to conduct any sort of sustained campaign since the days of the Real IRA under Mickey McKevitt over two decades ago.

Unfortunately for the PSNI, not all its members may in future be as "lucky" as the officers yesterday.

But a lack of significant support in the nationalist community, massively improved surveillance technology, and effective intelligence gathering means that the security services are well on top of the dissidents' low-level campaign.

In a decade the dissidents have killed six people they deem 'legitimate targets'. While the suffering inflicted on the victims' families knows no end, that is not a death toll which will unsettle the authorities.

Former IRA prisoner and writer Anthony McIntyre says: "I oppose any continuation of armed struggle but for those who support it, the dissident campaign is one of spectacular failure.

"They spend more time making noise than doing anything else. There is nothing at all to worry the State in what they do.

"If the British had faced the level of activity they are getting now during the Provisional IRA campaign, they would have been celebrating every day of the week."

In his book Peace Or Pacification: Northern Ireland After The Defeat Of The IRA, which will be published later this month, Belfast-based academic Liam O Ruairc offers an incisive analysis of all shades of republicanism. He notes that for dissidents, "successful operations are the exception, not the rule".

He quotes a former Real IRA commander who said "what presently exists is something between an illusion of war and an aspiration to wage war - but there is no war".

It's difficult to dispute O Ruairc's view of dissident attacks as having "very much a symbolic value rather than a purely strategic one".

Those who tried to kill police in Wattle Bridge are trying to prevent 'normalisation' here. They're sending out a message to the Government and the world that, regardless of the peace process, the conflict is far from resolved.

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