Malachi O'Doherty: If dissidents didn't have feud with mainstream republicans before Friday, they might have one now
The 'New IRA' attacks on Gerry Adams and Bobby Storey are part of a wider strategy designed to make Sinn Fein's return to Stormont impossible. By Malachi O'Doherty
Those who threw bombs at the homes of Gerry Adams and Bobby Storey are challenging the Provisional movement as they have never done before. So something has changed. Either they are stupider and more reckless than in the past, or they are more confident.
Colum Eastwood has described the rioting in Derry as "stupid". But that is to judge it by its long-term aspiration, a united Ireland. I suspect it was more considered and strategic than the violence instigated by the UVF in east Belfast.
There, the paramilitaries had challenged the police to come in to their area, indeed left them with no choice but to remove two massive and dangerous bonfire towers. It was barely conceivable, unless someone really was stupid, that the state would go on year after year enduring the risk of civilians and property being jeopardised.
But once the police came in the UVF had little idea how to respond, other than to burn 13 cars and a bus.
It may feel it has set the basis for conflict and tension next year, when the towers are built again, but it has not been able to convert its challenge into a gain of any kind that I can see.
In Derry, the republican purists who want to preserve the IRA as a dogged and armed opposition to partition and British rule might be doing better than you think.
Their tactical goal during the last week was obviously to kill a police officer.
They tried this by sending kids out to throw petrol bombs at Protestant homes, requiring the police to intervene and make themselves available as targets for automatic gunfire and pipe bombs.
But there was a larger game, and that was to continue the acculturation of young people into their movement, to wrong-foot the police into heavy handed measures against them and to embarrass the Provisionals, showing them up as lackies of the British state.
The propaganda pitch is that the police are now firing plastic bullets at children and Sinn Fein is siding with the old enemy
This all looks completely ridiculous and petty right now, and hopefully that's how most people will continue to view it.
But if someone is killed - and the Chief Constable says that is likely - then the mood can change.
At least, that has been the pattern of the past and the dissidents, drawing on the past, might think they have a reasonable prospect of pulling the police into doing something that would lose them support in the Bogside.
Attacking the homes of Adams and Storey underlines the fact that the real target here is the Provisional movement, assuming that dissident republicans are involved there as in Derry.
That's how it works in the whole Fenian tradition. Pearse led his men to war in O'Connell Street not primarily to overthrow British rule - an impossible goal for so small an army - but to undermine and usurp the nationalism of John Redmond.
The Provisional IRA campaign was similarly concerned to humiliate and destroy the SDLP.
The historic precedent for the attack on the home of Adams is the attack on the home of SDLP leader Gerry Fitt by the Provisionals and similar attacks on Joe Hendron and Alban Maginness.
And the SDLP found that it simply could not move to cement the plan for power-sharing until the IRA campaign had stopped and cleared space for it.
The purists - or dissidents - may now feel that they can be a similar drag on Sinn Fein and its political goals.
The worst they could do is draw the Provisionals into a feud. If they do that, we can wave goodbye to Stormont, if we have not already done so.
It is a hugely risky thing to challenge the Provisionals in the way they have done.
They may be calculating that the movement no longer has the resources to retaliate against them.
Certainly, it is not the huge organisation it was, but it still has killers.
The police assessment after the murder of Kevin McGuigan in the Markets three years ago was that members of the Provisional IRA had participated in it.
The question then was whether the murder had been sanctioned, and we had a political crisis while security officials and political parties chewed over that impossible conundrum.
It was a get-out clause that had spared the Provisionals many times before and allowed the peace process to continue.
If the Provisionals retaliate against those who attacked the homes of Adams and Storey, then Arlene Foster will not be able to re-enter Stormont in partnership with Sinn Fein.
And Mary Lou McDonald, as the new face of conciliatory republicanism, would be in difficulty too. She would then have to either endorse the IRA's right to strike back or, like PUP leader Dawn Purvis after the murder of Bobby Moffat, would have to disown it. McDonald said just two weeks ago that she assumed the IRA did not exist because she did not see it.
One has to hope that there will not be a feud.
In the past, the next stage in a crisis like this would be a sit-down at Clonard Monastery. Adams has been there many times to face Official IRA leaders at war with him, and later with British delegates.
Fr Alex Reid, who facilitated those meetings, is dead. So also is Fr Gerry Reynolds. We don't know if Clonard is geared up to offering that kind of support now, or if anybody wants it.
Adams has been magnanimous in feud negotiations in the past. He ended the succession of feuds with the Official IRA in 1977, going as far as to let the last strike by the Officials go without retaliation. That was the murder of Tommy 'Toddler' Tolan, who had participated with Adams in the farcical escape bid from Long Kesh in 1973.
He negotiated that truce with his own brother-in-law Micky McCorry, the feud having endangered his own family then, too.
But what use is a paramilitary gang if it doesn't provide backing support for its members?
If the Provisionals do not punish those responsible for throwing bombs at the homes of Adams and Storey, then we will know that they no longer even fulfil the most basic function of such a gang.
That, indeed, would be highly reassuring for the political critics of Sinn Fein.
That would provide the best argument that they really have "gone away, like a butterfly" to quote Storey, and pose no threat at all.
I think we have to assume that if the dissidents are mad enough to want a feud with the Provos, they will have it. And political progress will have to wait for another day.