Archive for August 26th, 2009


One thing can be said with confidence about the decision of dissident
republicans to mount a checkpoint in South Armagh on Friday:
they had made the judgement that it would be safe for them to block
the road and to display weapons in the open air. That judgement was
vindicated. They were right.
A PSNI patrol, stumbling upon members of the Real IRA disporting
themselves as if they were the only law in the country, made a
tactical withdrawal. They made the judgement that it would not be safe
for them to proceed. That judgement was probably correct too.
But why did members of the Real IRA conclude that they could blithely
place themselves in the firing line? Well, they have seen the
dismantling of the security apparatus that plagued the Provisional IRA
in that area. When hilltops around the scene would have housed
watchtowers, it would have been difficult for them to evade detection,
though not impossible, even then.
And when helicopters patrolled the skies over Armagh, the gunmen would
have been quickly spotted.
Even in those days, it would have been a rare for British soldiers to
take the kind of action that units in Afghanistan would mount against
armed militants who had broken cover.
Since the late 1980s – a time when the British army and the RUC
frequently ambushed targets – the approach has been more sensitive.
The worst that these men had to fear, probably, was that they would be
detected leaving the scene and arrested. By then, of course, they
would have dumped their gear.
In Gaza or Helmand, you get blitzed for behaving like that. The guy on
the ground who spots you would either shoot you himself with a sniper
rifle or summon up a missile strike from a helicopter gunship to do
the job.
Armed militants in Northern Ireland have understood for a long time
that that is not the local way of doing things.
There are two likely explanations for the behaviour.
One is that it was bait for that unlikely ambush. In which case they
calculated badly. No one was going to take that bait.
Intelligence indicates that the Real IRA is currently in possession of
a belt fed machine gun. So, conceivably the armed republicans handing
out leaflets to drivers in South Armagh were hoping that PSNI mobile
support units would descend on them. This being so close to the
anniversary of the Provisional IRA’s slaughter of paratroopers at
Narrow Water in 1979, the inheritors of republican paramilitary
responsibility might — who knows? — have been trying to legitimate
that mantle with a grisly spectacular of their own.
If so, they failed to take into account the timorous and tentative
manner in which the modern PSNI confronts insurgency.
More likely, it was a propaganda stunt.
As such, it was a good one.
They can say that they control the roads now and that neither the
forces of the state nor Establishment Republicans can do anything
about them. A photographic image of this checkpoint, if it is
broadcast, will carry the message that the Real IRA is now the
functioning power in the land.
Of course, all they did was stop a few cars on a quiet Friday evening,
in holiday season, hand out a few leaflets and disperse. But the image
of armed republicans acting like the forces of the state, mimicking
the Brits, is a potent one. The Provisionals made several attempts to
disport themselves in this way, as did the Official IRA, patrolling
the markets area of Belfast in their own jeep in 1972.
One of the big clashes between the BBC and the Thatcher government
concerned efforts by journalists to film an IRA checkpoint in
Carrickmore in County Tyrone.
There is not a lot of footage out there of tooled up paramilitaries
swanking with their guns, looking as if they can operate as freely in
the Northern Irish countryside as, say, Hamas does in Gaza. We tend to
see the same clips over and over again.
In that the Real IRA is fighting a propaganda war rather than a
military contest for territory, the more it can present itself as
looking like an actual army, to the embarrassment of Sinn Fein and the
police, the more effectively it makes the case abroad that the
conflict continues.
“This was an attempt by this group to make themselves relevant,” said
SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley. That’s one way of putting it.
If video footage of this goes out to the world, they will have put
themselves at the heart of hundreds of future news bulletins, since
broadcasters are always scrambling for images to illustrate a dramatic
account of conflict here.
Ulster Unionist and Danny Kennedy says the incident demonstrates that
we are not yet ready for the devolution of policing and justice here.
The paradox of his political position is that it probably coincides
with that of the Real IRA. They probably calculate that if they can
scare the Unionists out of devolution, that that would be the shortest
route to undermining and even bringing down the executive.
The biggest worry about the Real IRA currently is that they do have a
hand to play.
Ironically, it is difficult to think of anything that the police could
have done that would have been more productive than backing away from the scene. Had they mounted an attack on a checkpoint, they might have just created a couple of Real IRA hero martyrs.
Then again, their having been taken by surprise suggests a failure of
intelligence. Maybe that is the most worrying part of the story.

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