Belfast Telegraph

Sir Ivor Roberts: As dissident republican threat resurfaces, we risk sleepwalking back into an era of communal strife

If we hope to keep a lid on the violence, real engagement between Sinn Fein and the other parties at Stormont is needed now more than ever, writes Sir Ivor Roberts

The scene after a car bomb detonated outside a Parachute Regiment barracks in Aldershot in 1972
The scene after a car bomb detonated outside a Parachute Regiment barracks in Aldershot in 1972
Police at Waterloo Station after letter bombs were sent by the dissidents to the UK

By Sir Ivor Roberts

On February 22, 1972, a month on from Bloody Sunday, the first Provisional IRA attack in Britain occurred. A car bomb detonated outside a Parachute Regiment barracks in Aldershot, killing seven civilians.

An IRA statement the following day admitted the bombing as a revenge attack for Bloody Sunday, an event that still acts to tarnish the name of the Parachute Regiment.

The parallels with recent events are striking, with the news cycling at one point between Bloody Sunday and a new republican bombing campaign in Britain.

The opinions of politicians in Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland on the conduct of troops on Bloody Sunday triggered fiery headlines in the lead-up to news that criminal proceedings will be brought against one of the soldiers involved.

All the while, a 21st century watershed has been reached. The New IRA's admitting of letter bombs sent to Heathrow and London City Airports, Waterloo Station and Glasgow University mark their first clear overtures to a campaign of violence in Britain.

In 1972 few seriously believed the Troubles could last until 1998. Now few believe they could begin again.

We must look again with sober minds at the warnings in front of us.

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The public disgust at the Aldershot bombing contributed to the IRA's 1972 ceasefire, but this in turn failed to prevent three decades of violence which would define a generation and claim thousands of lives on both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland.

While much has been made about the refusal of the people of Northern Ireland to return to the Troubles, the threat of conflict does not come from the moderate centre-ground - it never does - but from society's extremists.

The first real signs of a renewed IRA campaign came on January 19 this year. CCTV footage from Londonderry shows children passing a car abandoned outside the city's courthouse minutes before it explodes; thankfully not claiming any lives.

Leading political figures took pains to stress that the act was carried out - and supported - by a tiny minority in society.

The dissident letter bombs show that, even if it is confined to a small faction of extremists, violence is still very much viewed as a viable option.

The history of Northern Ireland shows that a few violent men and women can light a fire that engulfs a province.

In the 1970s Edward Heath's Conservative Government could not bridge the gap between Northern Ireland's nationalist and unionist factions, despite secret talks, the Sunningdale Agreement and symbolic gestures.

Today Stormont is in the mire and nationalists are again feeling alienated by a DUP-Conservative coalition playing with fire over the Irish border and Brexit.

Repeated tone-deaf comments from the Westminster Establishment in relation to the border have not helped matters. Nor has Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley's defence of the conduct of soldiers in Northern Ireland, which she later walked back from.

As the announcement of criminal proceedings against 'Soldier F' over Bloody Sunday drew closer, the visceral sense of raw emotion still connected to the horrible events of the Troubles was brought to the fore.

There is no widespread appetite to plunge Northern Ireland into violence once again, but nor was there in 1972, or any other year of the Troubles. However, the lack of political representation in Belfast has left a vacuum and offered extremists the chance to radicalise a new generation of self-styled militants, unburden by personal experience of the violence of the Troubles.

The prospect of engaging with militant nationalism is only more attractive to disaffected youth now it is clear, once again, that violence generates headlines.

The past few weeks have also seen the horrors of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings recounted during the official inquest, with first responders and relatives of those lost often unable to complete their testimonies as they recall the aftermath of the IRA attack.

The gravity of violent events has not been lost on many in Northern Ireland, and calls for justice have taken place in both communities.

Whether Bradley's comments were misguided, misinterpreted or mistimed is not of particular importance. They have added fuel to the extremist fire at a time when the danger is building and support the dissident republican narrative that the British Government does not respect Irish nationalists and will not deign to understand their concerns.

The forthcoming soldier trial will be an extended opportunity for extremists to ram home the message to potential recruits: the British state is your enemy.

The Brexit negotiations brought with them an unwelcome gamble with the peace process. Inaction now represents a gamble on a return to violence.

Saoradh, the political wing of the dissidents, seeks to fulfil the role Sinn Fein once had, as a political arm and mouthpiece for terrorists.

It is ironic that political engagement through Sinn Fein is now mainstream republicanism's most effective bulwark against violent republicanism. But with no Stormont and no sway on Brexit and the border, Sinn Fein's argument that it gives republicans a legitimate and heard voice loses much of its sway.

If we hope to keep a lid on violence in Northern Ireland - violence that is already spilling over to Britain - real political engagement between Sinn Fein and other parties in a restored Stormont is needed now more than ever.

So, too, is constructive engagement with the concerns of those living in the border areas and more tactful commentary from the political class at Westminster.

None of this can be achieved without genuine, good faith co-operation between the British and Irish Governments and one eye on the lessons of the past.

Sir Ivor Roberts is a former British ambassador to Dublin (1999-2003) and is a senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project (https://www.counterextremism.com)

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