The reaction to the terrible murders of the last few days has been interesting. Some have seen it as a great coming together of our society and in that coming together have seen considerable cause for hope. Much as I welcome the clear fact that the majority of our citizens utterly reject this violence I am reminded that it takes very few people to sustain a campaign of murder. I am also reminded that as a small child I stood with my parents at a peace people rally: in those days as well practically everyone rejected the violence brought upon us; not that it did much good to stop it.
The political reaction has also been interesting. Many even amongst our seasoned politicians seem dismayed and surprised by what had occurred. Feeling dismay is entirely reasonable; it is something I too felt. Surprise, I would suggest, however, fails to understand the lessons of history. I have frequently suggested that violence might return and I am genuinely saddened by how accurate this blog was (I rarely ask people to read my previous blogs but I would recommend reading this one in light of current events). I really hope and pray that violence will not return any more to our streets than it has already done. I do predict, however, that we are in a situation where unless some action is taken more potent than warm words, we are standing before, at best, a border campaign type of violence.
Now having been conciliatory I feel it necessary to mention some home truths which will probably cause considerable anger.
Sinn Fein of all the political parties must have been the least surprised at what has happened. They are an organisation inextricably linked to the (now on ceasefire, I agree) Provisional IRA. That organisation lost a number of members some 10 years ago after its ceasefire and I have little doubt that senior members of the IRA, some of whom are also senior members of SF, know who these people are. In the murder of the two soldiers especially, it is notable that the terrorists, after first wounding their victims, walked over and shot them again. Those are not the actions of panicked young men on their first mission of murder: they are actions of seasoned killers who, I would have no doubt, have killed before. This is a topic I will return to.
Sinn Fein must have suspected that one of the dissident organisations would, sooner or later, manage to murder someone: they may be completely opposed to such a murder but the fact that it was likely must have been obvious to them. As such SF must have thought through a series of possible responses: hence, the long delay before the initial comments is interesting rather than surprising. The fact that SF took three goes to get out a proper condemnation looks more calculated than incompetent. I know this will raise hackles but I would submit that SF knew exactly what they were doing and the stuttering condemnation was because they did not really want to condemn the murder of British soldiers but knew they would have to. Surely some in the republican movement would have heard those comments and interpreted them as showing that SF were doing what they knew they had to and not really saying what they truly felt. Certainly this seemed to be the impression of a number of the local and GB media outlets.
The more rapid condemnation of the murder of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll was probably easier for the republican movement; explicable as it was as the murder of a member of the new police service and not the hated British army. However, the murder of Constable Carroll and the subsequent SF condemnation of it seemed to cause everyone to stop any criticism or even analysis of SFs previous comments. Sinn Fein now seemed almost heroic in saying what every decent person unionist, nationalist or other has been saying for years. I am also profoundly worried that these dreadful murders will be used as the excuse for further moving forwards. Again I did a blog some time ago about the fallacy of seeing Northern Ireland as some sort of Flying Dutchman having to move politically forwards in perpetuity: the problem being that the destination of this movement is all too often seen as towards a pro SF agenda. Indeed I will predict now, that soon someone will tell us that if only policing and justice was devolved, SF would find it easier to persuade republicans to go to the police about the dissidents.
Clearly everyone feels the need to pull together and hence, minimise the risks of this dreadful violence becoming worse. However, I would submit that warm words are not enough and Sinn Fein especially need now to take more specific, concrete and for them uncomfortable steps. I have covered many of these suggestions in my last blog on the subject. I would suggest that Sinn Fein have done a small part of what I suggested but far too little. As well as the people like Adams, McGuinness and ODowd condemning the recent murders and calling for all to go to the police, we also need to see leading SF members from the areas known to have strong dissident elements call for the same. Conor Murphy and Michelle Gildernew must be on television and quoted on the Sinn Fein web site calling on their constituents to go to the police about dissident activity. Adams and co need to welcome the deployment of specialist soldiers, if that is what Hugh Orde feels is needed. This is something which I believe John O’Dowd specifically opposed when interviewed this week. The Provisional IRA must provide the police with a full list of the weapons which they had and exactly where and how they were destroyed. They must also tell the police which weapons were removed by the dissidents before the destruction of the stockpiles: this would allow the government and security forces to work out what weaponry the dissidents have and what else they might be endeavouring to acquire.
Returning to the issue of the murderers themselves, McGuinness stated that he did not know who committed these murders. I suspect this is probably true. However, it is also somewhat disingenuous. As I said above these murders were probably seasoned killers, I doubt they would be younger than 35. McGuinness must know who left the IRA at the time of the ceasefires and I would suggest could make a passable stab at the names of the people who committed this foul crime. McGuinness must himself provide or get his former friends in the Provisional IRA to provide the police with a list of the people they think set up the Real and Continuity IRA. He must then tell us all that he has done so. I do not want the names made public just the fact that he has named names.
On the topic of honesty I would suggest that many, not only those in the unionist community, would take the utterances of leading members of SF a great deal more seriously if McGuinness would admit to having been a senior figure in the IRA much more recently than the early 1970s and if Adams would admit to his own IRA membership.
Some have suggested that Sinn Fein has crossed a Rubicon over this issue. I would suggest that there is an opportunity for SF to make such a step but for the moment it is actually making a big splash in the river to distract people from the fact that it is firmly ensconced on the wrong side.