It has been an odd week.
On Saturday, March 7, two men with automatic rifles killed two soldiers receving a pizza delivery at the gate of their base in County Antrim and two nights later, a sniper killed a policeman in his car on a housecall.
The media has taken an interest in whether the Troubles are back on or not, so I – and all the other journalists I know – have been doing wee interviews for the World Service and Sky and others, explaining what we know, or at least trying to sound plausible and helpful.
For me, this has been like retuning my brain to where it was ten years ago. I like the new directions I have taken in journalism and writing, away from intense preoccupation with terrorism and the politics of a divided society, but it seems urgent now to be fresh and lucid on those subjects again.
So, a few thoughts.
This is not the start of a new campaign. That campaign is already well advanced and into a routine; it just has not been very competently pursued. Last autumn I was asked to chair an event for the police and it was canceled because the security threat was too high. There have been bombings, shootings, kneecappings and beatings by Republican dissidents. They just failed to persuade most people, until now, that they were worth noticing for the threat they presented to government and good order.
We don’t expect to see a campaign because we can see no point in it. There is no major grievance in the Catholic community to drive it.
The common argument against a new campaign is, roughly, this. The dissident republicans have no hope of achieving what the Provisional IRA failed to achieve in thirty years.
We will understand what viable objectives the dissidents might have if we understand what is wrong with that argument. The Provisional IRA failed to achieve a united Ireland but succeeded greatly in the secondary objective of stalling all political compromise in Northern Ireland until it was ready to participate itself. No attempt at a settlement could work until they permitted it to work. Their campaign presented a veto rather than a demand. (This is the basic thesis of my book The Trouble With Guns)
So, can a new campaign by dissidents be effective also in vetoing government here?
It might. One of the conditions of the peace process is that there be a major increase in the recruitment of Catholic police officers. That can be stalled if Catholics are made fearful of joining.
And there is another opportunity presented by our uncompleted policing reform.
A condition of the continuance of power sharing government, for Sinn Fein, is the devolution of policing and justice to Stormont. Can this be prevented if Unionists and Republicans move to polarised visions of how the police might respond to a terror campaign? Possibly. Unionists are traditionally hardline and favour tough responses and Republicans are already protesting against stop and search and the use of army reconnaissance teams.
And what about those republicans who are now sceptical of power sharing but do not support the dissidents; those who have been with the peace process so far? Is there a danger that they will be disillusioned and will defect to support a growing dissident campaign? Well, they are miffed that Sinn Fein has been humiliated in its power sharing relationship with the DUP. And they surely can not be much impressed with the Sinn Fein claim to be providing a route to a united Ireland. This is the weakness in the Sinn Fein position; it actually has virtually no chance of uniting Ireland. Then again, neither have the dissidents, though they might aspire to scuppering the Sinn Fein project and see that, at least, as progress in the right direction.
The hopeful sign, for most, is that the new threat to the stability of the region has been met with a dogged show of unity between Sinn Fein and the DUP, and clear calls from Sinn Fein for republicans to support the police against the dissidents. The threat has strengthened the centre. This is what happens. In a sense, our power sharing government now has an opposition, an armed opposition. First indications are that this has actually improved the quality of government. And that makes me think of Israel, a country in which disparate and antagonistic political forces rally together against the external threat of violence. A country can come to identify itself against a threat rather than by its own native characteristics. I have a horror of a new plucky wee Ulster emerging that would need to threat of the dissidents to hold it together. But, hopefully, we are a long way from that still.