Woodward hopes that the public response to Massareene barracks will stir consciences over Omagh

BBC NI are annoyingly slow to update their website on such a big story, so here’s my take from Radio Ulster. In his response on Radio Ulster’s 7 Days to the Massareene barracks murders, Shaun Woodward the NI Secretary of State made some interesting points. Despite the high threat level, “ we did not see this attack on the barracks coming” even though it was a clearly a “ premeditated attempt at mass murder.” The killers “ feared we would complete the devolution of policing and justice. – they want to stall it: that’s their campaign.” A rather left field opinion, surely: the devolution of p&j will increase pressure on SF by distancing them further from the republican tradition the dissidents purport to defend. More likely is the theory put by Gerry Adams that the aim is to provoke the return of the army on the streets. Whether by luck or design, as noted the timing of the attack will have caused SF considerable embarrassment, Adam’s statement taking 14 hours to emerge and coming less than 24 hours after his warning to Hugh Orde that he was risking losing republican support over the deployment of Special Reconnaissance Regiment personnel.

Woodward also played down those objections of Sinn Fein and the SDLP to the deployment ( “the rhetoric was pretty heated but didn’t shed much light”), adding that the Chief Constable was “entirely right “ to do so. “When the army’s security role ended, “we made it clear that we would retain military expertise for example to defuse that bomb in Castlewellan, just as the Met commissioner can call on it to tackle al_Qaida.”
In an intriguing reflection, he volunteered a comparison with Omagh. “If we refer back to the Omagh atrocity there are people who know who did it. It will take time to bring the perpetrators to justice. There is still a climate of fear and we will have to work at it. I’m determined we will do it in memory of those two boys shot last night.” This appears at odds with the prevailing view put for example by Hugh Orde that the time for mounting a successful prosecution over Omagh has probably gone. Could it be that the Massareene barracks murders might reawaken consciences and fruitfully revive old contacts?

Two other points , one noted by BBC NI Political editor Mark Devenport. One, it took 14 hours for Sinn Fein to issue an initial “clinical” response, at first omitting the word “ condemn” This, he was surely right to say, reflected difficulties over their historic antagonism to the British army and also their disapproval shared by the SDLP, of the decision to call in the SRR. Mark noted that Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin had since condemned the attack and sent sympathy to the relatives on the BBC’s Politics show, which no doubt will be posted on Slugger shortly.

Major questions for the future. Will this attack speed up or delay the transfer of policing and justice powers? When they are transferred, can the Executive hold together over highly sensitive matters such as calling in the Army on future specific missions? In that event, what would an Alliance minister do? Or are tricky matters like this an inviolable part of Orde’s operational independence, however much the nationalist parties might object? Will the parties learn the lesson of the attack, that to split over limited and sensible security measures plays into the hands of violent extremists? If nothing else, last night’s horror ought to concentrate minds. None more than Sinn Fein’s, but not theirs alone.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London