With policing powers devolved, will Sinn Fein bite the bullet over the dissidents?

“Policing has got to be ruthless” cries the Newsletter, echoing their endless headlines of 30 years ago. In contrast, Henry warns against repeating “the lethal errors of repressive legislation, internment, Bloody Sunday and later the criminalisation programme in the H-Blocks. The mistakes in state policy drove many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young nationalists into the PIRA’s ranks.” Superficially we have been here before. But the response to counter insurgency didn’t start like that. Emerging out of communal violence it began with “softly softly”, “no go areas,” a briefly disarmed police force, and that identical phrase which Hugh Orde would have been wise to have avoided: “ an acceptable level of violence” from Home Secretary Reginald Maudling. Mauding’s remarks in 1971 were taken as presaging moves towards a new political strategy, so the context is completely different. Everyone seems to agree that political change alone is not so to speak, the magic bullet for suddenly dissipating the residues of insurgency, although politics ought to be able to forestall a major upsurge. But in dealing with political violence, have we learned nothing and forgotten nothing? Surely not. Policing and governance are transformed. We can only hope the transformation survives under pressure. Now that Justice powers are being transferred what can Sinn Fein do to help? An ideological contest among republicans seems a no win. As revolutionaries, the rejectionists ( as I prefer to call the dissidents) reject the ballot box in principle until they are dead or revolutionaries no more. Will mainstream republicans leave all initiatives entirely to the State apparatus or exploit their local networks to squeeze the rejectionists? ( And I don’t mean nutting or kneecapping). So far they’ve claimed little success.

If by one means or another, the test on the ground is passed, a steady flow of information will lead to arrests and an eventual collapse of rejectionist activity. In the meantime, unless mainstream republicans make a convincing case that they can deliver all this on their own, we should hear fewer kneejerk condemnations of intelligence gathering and stop and search. And if we’re looking for lessons from the past, although we have the residue of the past 30 years added on, the parallel worth examining is the border campaign of 1957-62, defeated not mainly by policing but by the will of the nationalist people. The option of internment south of the border (administered by Charles Haughey in 1962, the last Irishman to have imposed it), we can take to be no longer relevant.

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