Some thoughts on last week

The second best playwright to come from Portora Royal School famously used the term “The Love that dare not speak its name.” There is a political fact from last week which also dares not speak its name. Many have tried to describe the dissident murder of two soldiers and a policeman as simply crime and such like. That is of course completely correct: they were and are shocking and deeply wicked. However, they are also deeply political evil acts and whether or not they will achieve any political gain for their perpetrators is and will for some time continue to remain unclear. This is at least in part since it is unclear exactly what are the real political aims of the Real IRA: their claim of responsibility stated their purported aims. However, other short term goals such as damaging SF, stirring up community division or simply murdering people whom they hate are likely short term aims. I have blogged before (to no little protest) on my views on what I feel the Sinn Fein response should be. I have also suggested that the response to date might have been calculated: whether or not it was calculated SF does seem (in NI at least) to have gained some political capital in the short term; again in the longer term is very difficult to know these murders’ effects. The SF response has, however, at least temporarily stopped or assuaged some of the DUP attacks on them. Even Gregory Campbell has suggested that their response has some positives.

In reality and leaving aside any moral issues, there is a gaping hole in SF’s logic; a hole which when the initial horror of the events has passed may be picked up upon more widely. Constable Carroll’s murder has many similarities with the murders of RUC officers John Graham and David Johnston in 1997. The murders were committed only a few miles apart and in both cases the policemen involved were carrying out community policing roles. In Stephen Carroll’s case responding to antisocial behaviour, in John Graham and David Johnston’s case they were commencing “walking the beat”; both sorts of community policing being the type of event that politicians and indeed the public always regard as critical for community safety and confidence. It is interesting to contrast John O’Dowd’s condemnation of Stephen Carroll’s murder and attendance at the funeral with his comments at the time of the previous murders. Mr. O’Dowd and the rest of Sinn Fein of course explain their supposed about turn on these events by saying that everything has changed since the Belfast Agreement. Yet it is difficult to see any qualitative or quantitative differences between the actions of Stephen Carroll and those of John Graham and David Johnston.

Gerry Adams stated “We will not be deflected from our republican and democratic objectives.” Where pray tell was the democracy in the previous IRA campaign? It is worth remembering yet again that prior to the IRA ceasefire the SDLP routinely defeated SF in practically every election (West Belfast and on one occasion Mid Ulster being exceptions). In addition prior to the ceasefire SF were an even more contemptibly small party in the RoI than they are now. As such there was no democratic mandate for the IRA campaign. To get any semblance of democratic legitimacy one had to go back to the 1919 election. Sinn Fein seemed in the past to adhere closely to the dictum of “One Man, One Vote, Once.”

Other Sinn Fein gems during this latest round of condemnation are of course equally at variance with recent history. O’Dowd came out with this about the dissidents “They have no strategy to deliver a United Ireland.” Since after the mid 1970s, at the latest, it was painfully clear that the “British” were not going to be forced out of Northern Ireland by force of arms, the previous IRA strategy was by extension as bankrupt as the dissident’s campaign now is. Possibly the best example of the complete logical inconsistency in SF’s approach is Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin’s: practically every sentence is as completely applicable to the IRA campaign up to 1998 as it is to the dissidents now.

As I said at the start, however, although the latest murders are completely wrong, they are intensely political crimes and are far, far from “mindless.” Whether they will have the effect desired by their perpetrators and whether or not those perpetrators have a clear vision of their aim is unclear. However, that vision was no more clear when the Irish Collie Club was targeted, or when the workers at Kingsmills were murdered. How exactly the murder of Patsy Gillespie is qualitatively different from the attempted murder of the pizza delivery men is something which is unclear to those outside the cognoscenti of terrorists and their fellow travellers.

Despite the advantages possibly accrued by SF from any “statesmanship” of their spokespersons, the events of the past week may well make some of their favoured PR stunts a little uncomfortable. It will be more difficult to laud previous generations of terrorists who performed very similar mandate-less attacks which were equally unlikely to end partition and resulted in little other than deaths: unless one counts roadside memorials and songs. It may make attempts to honour the events like the “martyrdom” of the East Tyrone Brigade more difficult: the 22nd anniversary of which would have been a useful rallying cry ahead of the European elections.

Turning back to the DUP they also have been affected by this highly political set of murders. Whilst Peter Robinson has been attending joint news conferences and photo opportunities with that new champion of democracy Martin McGuinness, it will be difficult for his underlings to continue quite the same attacks on SF as previously. It may for a time be difficult for Nelson McCausland to continue to make accusations of IRA involvement against Gerry Adams in the same way as David Simpson may find it difficult to repeat his attacks on Francie Molloy. We have also now seen what almost looks like a UUP attempt to cross the DUP’s T with Reg Empey suggesting that these murders demonstrate that this is no time to devolve policing and justice. Whether this tactic will benefit the UUP (or the New Force) is highly unclear though not completely impossible.

The immediate aftermath of the first murders seemed to be anger, including at the stuttering nature of SF’s condemnation. The subsequent murder and the widespread terror that these events were going to presage the return of widespread violence seem to have produced a significant degree of community cohesion. The level of that cohesion and its political relevance is highly unclear; whilst it seems abundantly clear that the vast majority of people have no desire to return to violence, it was always thus. At no time did anything other than a minority of people have any wish for violence. However, that clear community desire was always ignored by the terrorists on both sides; whether they are listening now remains extremely doubtful. Furthermore the longer term political ramifications of last week are still impossible to judge. It is to be hoped that the men of violence do not get their political desires. However, since there remain great divisions even amongst those genuinely committed to peaceful politics, it is impossible to judge what the effects of last week will be. Whilst almost all of us may well hope that the events of last week do not achieve what the dissidents, want there is no guarantee of that not least because we and (possibly they) do not really know what they actually want.“For the wheel’s still in spin. And there’s no tellin’ who That it’s namin’.”

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.