10 March 2009

Back to the 'Bad Old Days'?

In a month's time the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in Belfast on April 10th, 1998 (Good Friday), will be eleven years old. It is probably a typically Irish thing that politicians have wasted most of these years with quarrelling over the details of implementation.
Eventually we have seen the power-sharing government at Stormont established - less than two years ago - after the British and Irish governments had brought all political parties from the North to the Scottish university town of St. Andrews, where a second agreement was hammered out under strong pressure from both the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister.

No-one expected things to be perfect, or to be without plenty of 'teething problems'. But after the strongest exponents from both Northern communities - the former arch enemies DUP and Sinn Féin - managed to bury the hatchet and work together constructively in the Stormont administration, even the most serious sceptics began to think that there could be a peaceful future for the Six Counties.

The dream lasted for 22 months, and with every day the hopes for normality and prosperity grew a little larger.

But then came last weekend, and with it the return of guns - and the nutters who use them - to the North of Ireland.
I can understand that even now - despite all peace declarations, power-sharing and cross-community initiatives - some people are angry with Britain and deeply resent the centuries of oppression, exploitation and cruelties the British Crown, its governments, soldiers and civil servants forced upon this island and its native inhabitants. In fact, I am not a fan of the UK myself.

But this does not mean that I get myself a gun and go out at night shooting British soldiers or policemen. It makes no sense at all to behave in such a way. And anyone who claims that the cruel murders committed by a number of Irishmen on Saturday evening at the gate of the British Army's Massereene Barracks (home base of the 38th Regiment, Royal Engineers) in Co. Antrim (north of Belfast) have anything whatsoever to do with politics or the Irish desire for self-determination and a united Irish nation is both a fool and a liar.

What happened on Saturday night under the shady banner of the so-called 'Real IRA' was a crime. A cruel and terrible crime that made no sense, but no more and no less.

The same goes for the cowardly killing of 48-year-old Constable Stephen Carroll (left) - a man with more than 20 years of service as a policeman - which happened yesterday evening in Craigavon, Co. Armagh and was claimed earlier today by another criminal splinter group, the so-called 'Continuity IRA'.
Constable Carroll is the first policeman killed in the North in more than ten years, and the first member of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) who was murdered on duty. More than 300 policemen were killed in the Six Counties during the 30 years of the 'Troubles', when the police was organised differently and known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

According to security experts, both groups that claimed responsibility for the murders of the past three days are "small in numbers, and very limited in their capacity". It appears that they represent the most bitter and fanatical hard-liners who separated from the 'Provisional IRA' (PIRA), which conducted nearly three decades of guerilla warfare against Britain at the end of last century, after the IRA Army Council decided to join the peace process, disband their units and decommission their arms.
Who these people are is unknown. Otherwise they would most likely be in prison. But two things are clear: they are neither Irish patriots, nor representatives of anyone but themselves.

It is also significant - and once again quite typically Irish - that the small group of IRA dissenters did not form one single force of opposition, but at least two. It shows that we can rarely agree on anything, and that we are truly a very tribal people. So it would be wrong to call these people 'republicans' or 'nationalists'. They do neither know nor understand what a nation and a republic is, and would lack the discipline to form either. They are nothing but tribal warriors of the worst kind, without any philosophy, political target or proper command structure.
However, this lack of structure and control makes them quite dangerous.

In fact, there are actually more than two radical splinter groups. There could be as many as a dozen groups of disgruntled ex-IRA people or radical extremists who are determined to carry on regardless. But most of them are so tiny - some maybe not more than four or five people - that they are not able for active operations. Most of them are - thankfully - also lacking weapons and explosives at this time. This limits their anger and action to speeches, poems and articles in small newspapers.
And there is also the possibility that the British intelligence agencies MI-5 and MI-6 still operate a few of their rogue agents provocateur in Ireland. They were amazingly successful during the 'Troubles' and managed to infiltrate almost all of the republican organisations, from Sinn Féin to the IRA Army Council. In some cases those agents rose to astonishingly high positions within the organisations they spied on, perhaps because they were a little more efficient and motivated than the average Irish rebel.

The two groups one has heard of over the years - 'Real IRA' (RIRA) and 'Continuity IRA' (CIRA) - have somehow managed to arm and equip themselves.
It is not clear if they still use former PIRA stocks which they brought under their control before the decommissioning process began or if they have obtained new weapons, perhaps from abroad.

On Saturday evening the so-called 'Real IRA' ambushed four off-duty British soldiers in Antrim. They had come to the gate of their garrison to collect some pizza, which they had ordered to celebrate their departure from Belfast. They were already dressed in khaki-coloured battle fatigues, and hours later they would have been on an aeroplane to Kabul, for a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The gunmen who had - it appears - followed the pizza delivery man (who is a Polish citizen working here) were shooting indiscriminately, firing more than 60 rounds in about 30 seconds. When they fled the scene, they left behind two soldiers dead, two others wounded, and two civilians also seriously injured.

For the past ten years such horrors were absent from the streets of the Six Counties, and if we heard or read about that kind of thing, it would be news from Iraq or Afghanistan. Now, it seems, the monster of terror has returned to our island.

Why now? And why at all?

This is difficult to answer, and only the perpetrators could really do it. But they remain silent and in the shadows, as one would expect it from the cowards they are.

In Co. Armagh, where the murder of Constable Carroll took place last night, the situation is slightly different than in Co. Antrim. Even during the thirty years of the 'Troubles' Armagh - traditionally the religious capital of all Ireland - and the surrounding county were a special case. There are feuds that run for centuries, and terrorist activities were always concentrated in a few small communities.
The sudden and - for most people - unexpected escalation of violent crime is only the latest act in a long-running series of local rebellion, rural thuggery and organised crime.
Unless the authorities in the North are willing and determined to drain the social swamp that keeps producing generation after generation of thugs and criminals, there will be no end to this problem.

There are, however, two silver linings around the dark clouds that have gathered over the Six Counties since Saturday evening.
In the late afternoon and early evening of today the PSNI arrested two men in Co. Armagh, close to the scene of last night's murder. According to a police spokesman they are "a man aged 37 and a 17-year-old youth, living locally". It is of course too early to draw conclusions, but it appears that the PSNI in Co. Armagh have at least a good idea who their opposition is. (So far no arrests have been made in Co. Antrim.)

The second positive, and probably even more significant, aspect is the rarely seen unity with which politicians of all parties - in the North, in the Republic and in Britain - have condemned the two latest acts of savagery and left no doubt that they will not derail - not even touch - the peace process and the determination for a decent political structure of fairness and co-operation in Ireland, North and South.

It would be easy for the Unionists to cry foul and point fingers, as they have done many times in the past. But nearly two years in government have taught even the most fundamentalist 'black Protestant' followers of Ian Paisley that shouting from the roof tops is no answer to political challenges, and that even in the North of Ireland the world is not just black and white.

And it would be equally easy for Republicans to wash their hands of radical and uncontrollable elements which are, after all, the product of the systematic unfairness, discrimination and 'Irish apartheid' that were the pillars of political philosophy in British-ruled Northern Ireland for 80 years.

But this time there is a strong united front standing against crime and terror. In a joint press conference with PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde (centre) in Belfast the North's First Minister (and DUP leader) Peter Robinson (left) and his Deputy, the senior Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness (right), made it clear that those who threatened stability and violated the peace are the enemies of them all.

McGuinness, in his youth himself an active member of the Provisional IRA who rose to command the Derry Brigade of that guerilla force, used the strongest words of all the politicians.
"In the past," he said, "there were people fighting for a united Ireland and against British rule. After three decades they decided that peaceful means are the better way to pursue their aims. Now we have a small group of self-appointed avengers who claim to act on behalf of Ireland. These people are traitors to the whole of Ireland. What they do betrays everything Irish nationalists and republicans stand for. They are scum and deserve to be treated as such. They deserve no support from anyone, and I urge the people to co-operate with the police in every possible way and form."

Such a tough statement has rarely been heard from an Irish Republican in the past, and it demonstrates clearly that Sinn Féin - in the past often seen as the 'political wing of the IRA' - is now a normal democratic party like any other in Ireland or Britain.

There is no nation on this planet without crime, and no society without social problems. They vary from one country to the next, and even from town to town things can be different. But the common factor of all crime is that it is directed against the common good, as well as against certain individuals.

In many Irish and British newspapers and on radio stations in both countries journalists and commentators have asked yesterday and today if the North of our beautiful island is "on the way back to the bad old days" of wide-spread violence, terror and the deployment of British troops on the streets of Irish towns and cities.
While some might have contemplated that seriously for a while, I do not expect it to happen. The Irish - and even more so the British - have in the past been slow learners of history and political wisdom. But now a new generation of politicians is in charge, a generation able to look forward and see a future, instead of burying their heads in the quarrels of the past.

There will be no turn-about, no return to guerilla fighting and civil war. As serious and shocking the murders of three uniformed members of the British security forces are, they will not create a new division of the Irish people. One can only hope that the PSNI will deal with the two acts of terror as quickly and professionally as possible, and that those responsible will be brought to Justice in due course.

But we all - Irish people in both jurisdictions - should also be aware of the new threats, as minor as they may be compared with the past, and be vigilant against people whose anti-social attitude would be a danger to any nation, state and society. They include thugs and common criminals, violent gangs and drug dealers as much as those who are trying to hide their brutal murders under a false flag of nationalism and political opposition.
It is high time that tribalism - a typical Irish trait for more than 2000 years - makes way for a new form of positive and true nationalism. Unless the people of Ireland - North and South - realise that our future is linked, and that we can only live peaceful and prosper if everyone co-operates on the basis of common sense and equal standards, we will never get rid of minority violence against the will and aims of the vast majority.

In a welcome change from the past all our politicians - and those in Britain as well - have left bickering and party politics behind. They have united against a common enemy - the enemy of the common people - and shown us the way. It is now for us - every person on this island - to follow their example and move forward into better times. Being people deeply rooted in history, we will never forget the 'bad old days' of violence, but we will never turn back. Even thinking of doing that would be nothing short of collective national suicide.

The Emerald Islander

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