Northern Ireland: Return to the darkest days?
ADAM McCalden could scarcely speak for crying when he phoned Stephen Nolan's Radio Five Live show hours after the murder of Catholic police officer Ronan Kerr, in Omagh, County Tyrone, but his message couldn't have been clearer.
"I am terrified of what I am hearing," the 25-year-old Belfast man said between sobs. "I am so proud of the country I have lived in all my life and I want to move forward like so many other people. I don't want this to happen."
McCalden's emotionally charged call - repeated on Radio Ulster the following day - encapsulated the deep anguish generated by the death of Pc Kerr, a young recruit from a nationalist heartland who seemed to represent the essence of the new Northern Ireland. It echoed the cross-community determination that the dissident Republicans who blew him up should not be allowed to undermine the peace process.
The strength of that determination was evident in the poignant (and carefully choreographed) images of Kerr's funeral at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in nearby Beragh. Only a few years ago, the presence of a Democratic Unionist Party leader at a Catholic mass or a Sinn Fein leader at the funeral of a police officer would have been unthinkable. Yet First Minister Peter Robinson stood side by side with his deputy Martin McGuinness as Cardinal Sean Brady urged mourners to "plead with (their] children and with (their] grandchildren not to get involved with violence".
The sight of the Gaelic Athletic Association (Kerr played gaelic football for his local club) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) forming a joint guard of honour was a beacon of hope which lit up a bleak day.
Such gestures of solidarity are all-important at a time when dissident Republicans, who regard the peace deal as a sell-out, seem more determined than ever to destabilise efforts to create a normal society.
Comprised principally of former IRA members groups such as the Real and Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, the paramilitaries are increasingly isolated from mainstream Republican opinion, with Sinn Fein toughening up its rhetoric and McGuinness branding them "worse than traitors" and "enemies of the people of Ireland".
Yet they still have the capacity to wreak havoc.Since early 2009, they have carried out attacks including the murder of two soldiers outside the Massereene Barracks in County Antrim and the planting of bombs in Lurgan and Londonderry.
So is Northern Ireland on the brink of returning to the darkest days of the Troubles?
The dissident groups have been behind a series of violent riots, last summer in the Ardoyne estate in north Belfast, and more recently, in Craigavon. They have targeted the homes of drug dealers under the guise of cleaning up the neighbourhood and are responsible for false bomb alerts.
As they demonstrated so starkly they have also been targeting Catholic police officers, seeing them as legitimate targets who have "betrayed" their nationalist identity. Pc Stephen Carroll of the elite tactical support group died after being lured into an ambush by the Continuity IRA in Craigavon, in March 2009. Pc Peadar Heffron was maimed when a bomb exploded under his car in west Belfast the following year.
Kerr, who graduated from training college in December had been with the force only a few weeks when the bomb, said to be the size of a lunchbox and weighing up to half a kilogram exploded as he got into his car on Saturday, 2 April. Shortly afterwards, his mother Nuala braved the cameras to urge other Catholics not to be put off joining the Police.
Yet although the near-universal revulsion to his murder shows the dissidents are isolated from mainstream Republicanism, they are not utterly bereft of support in certain nationalist communities.
Last year, a survey carried out by Professor Jonathan Tonge of Liverpool University found 14 per cent of nationalists had "some sympathy" with the reasons behind dissident Republican violence. The former IRA man whose refusal to condemn Kerr's murderers prompted McCalden's call to Nolan's show shocked listeners when he said: "These people have been described as morons. They are anything but morons, they are Irish Republicans going out there against the might of the British empire."
The dissidents have also found fertile recruitment ground in pockets of urban deprivation. In parts of Londonderry and Craigavon and on the Ardoyne estate, they have successfully penetrated youth culture, picking off disaffected teenagers too young to remember the Troubles. In Londonderry last week, graffiti boasted that Kerr would not be the last police officer to die.
"It's attractive to young men on housing estates where there is not much else going on," says Dr Duncan Morrow, chief executive of Northern Ireland's Community Relations Council. "They are told: 'Your forefathers did this and Sinn Fein has given up and you're the new heroes.' That is a powerful story, that you're part of a 200-year resistance to the occupation of Northern Ireland and you are the ones keeping the flame going."
On other occasions the paramiltaries use force, offering youths engaged in antisocial behaviour a choice between joining "the cause" or being beaten up.The discovery last week of a weapons cache in Coalisland, East Tyrone, vindicates MI5's assessment that they continue to pose a real threat.
Meanwhile recent fragmentation could make them even more unpredictable. Sources say, that while groups such as RIRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, continue to follow the pattern set by the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army, controlling everything on their patch, those involved in targeting the police and security services are increasingly detached from those groups. They are dissident dissidents.This may explain why no-one has yet claimed responsibility for Kerr's murder.
McGuinness has hinted that dialogue is ongoing, but it is difficult to see how any meaningful discussion could take place. "The thing about these groups is they're hardly amenable to conversation. They take the fundamentalist position that while the British are in Ireland, Ireland will never be at peace," Morrow says.
The tactic of targeting Catholic police officers will not win them fresh support, but it does have the potential to reawaken old resentments. Peter Sheridan, a Catholic police officer who joined the RUC in the 1980s and rose to the rank of assistant chief constable, spent 30 years checking his car for explosive devices. His decision to join a force which was 99 per cent Protestant left him alienated from his community and his church.
The point of setting up the PSNI (to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary) was to normalise policing and create a more inclusive and community-based service and that has proved largely successful. The proportion of Catholic officers has gone up from 8 per cent to almost 30 per cent in the ten years since its inception.
The chief executive of the peace-building charity Co-operation Ireland, Sheridan does not does not believe the attacks will stop Catholics joining. "I think there is something about human nature that when someone tells you can't do something, you react the opposite way, even though there's a danger associated with it," he says.
He concedes that increased security in the wake of dissidents' attacks could lead the police once more to be viewed as heavy-handed and antagonistic. "It's in their (the dissidents'] interests to show nothing has changed, so they will want to demonstrate how in Catholic areas, police are searching homes, carrying long-barrelled firearms having to wear flak jackets, to travel in armoured cars," he says. "If police officers are being killed, the chief constable has a duty to protect them, but then what you get is a drawing back from the normalisation process."
There is also the risk that - if violence were to escalate as it did in Ardoyne around 12 July last year - a member of the public might be killed. "There is very little public sympathy for the dissidents at the moment.But it probably only needs a couple of security-service mistakes, if someone were to be shot for example, for that to change," says Professor Tonge.
If the key to stemming the flow of disaffected young men to dissident groups lies with the many community workers who identify likely targets of paramilitary attention and offer them an alternative, then the timing could not be worse.
Voluntary and public-sector initiatives, already under pressure as "peace" money dries up, are being further squeezed by the economic crisis. On top of this, there are those who feel it is difficult to make the final transition to a "normal" society, when the whole peace deal is founded on trying to satisfy the conflicting needs of two distinct communities.
The security barriers may have disappeared from the centre of Belfast, but the city still boasts 88 "peace walls" and 95 per cent of housing is segregated.
The danger is that, so long as Northern Ireland continues to be divided in this way, a fairly minor sectarian incident could spark another chain of tit-for-tat reprisals. "We have moved from conflict to co-existence, but we don't want to settle for co-existence, which brings its own dangers," says Sheridan. "I think the next 15 years should be about integration."
Despite these qualms, few seriously believe the dissidents have the power to tip Northern Ireland back into the abyss. Indeed, far from achieving the paramilitaries' aim of causing division, Kerr's tragic death seems to have galvanised a show of unprecedented unity. Thousands gathered to express their outrage at the murder at a peace rally in Belfast, while hundreds more are expected to join a peace walk in Omagh today. Meanwhile the rapid arrest of three men - one in Balloch, Dunbartonshire, the others in County Tyrone - suggests the police have met with co-operation from the public.
It is to be hoped the sense of common cause that has emerged from one of the darkest days in the province's recent history went some way to consoling McCalden, who spoke for so many when he expressed his fear. "I want things to keep improving the way they have been," he said. "What is this achieving? We are just taking such a massive step back."
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