Today in Northern Ireland people from across the province will come together in silent protest at the violence which has occurred here since Saturday night. As ever there are divergent interpretations of the context which surrounds the murders. There also remain acute disagreements as to the best means of combating the menace of republican terror. However, the overwhelming sentiment, shared across the communities in Northern Ireland, is that our violent past should not be revisited under any circumstances. “Northern Ireland does not want to go back” is the message, which Michael succinctly articulates in an article on Conservative Home.
In the wake of events at the weekend I was quick to criticise Sinn Féin for an inadequate, vacillating response. To an extent this criticism stands. On Brass Neck Mick Fealty is scathing about Gerry Adams in particular, comparing him to an elderly Yasser Arafat, in the light of a dithering interview with Radio 4’s Today programme. In contrast, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, struck an appropriate note when he condemned the dissident murderers as “traitors to the people of the island of Ireland”. His words, delivered at the side of Sir Hugh Orde and the First Minister, Peter Robinson, represent the most unequivocal disavowal of the actions of fellow republicans which Sinn Féin has yet been able to muster.
Naturally unionists will be inclined to reflect on the bitter irony of McGuinness’ verdict bearing in mind his own violent past, for which he has offered no repentance. But this is no time to be churlish. A clear denunciation of the murderers was what Northern Ireland required from Mr McGuinness, and that was what he delivered, resoundingly, and in language likely to resonate amongst his own community.
Of course the real test for the deputy first minister and his colleagues lies ahead. Already the first signs of acrimony are becoming manifest, as the PSNI conducts its investigation into the murder of a colleague in Craigavon. Important questions remain as to the conduct of Sinn Féin.
Will mainstream republicans remain supportive of the police as officers strive to root out killers from within the very communities to which Sinn Féin must then turn in order to seek continued support at the ballot box? Will the party recognise that the chief constable retains operational discretion for his force, which includes the ability to call upon a certain amount of support from the army, should he believe that that support is necessary? Will the Shinners accept that, as part of the United Kingdom until the electorate decides otherwise, it is entirely appropriate that the UK’s armed forces should keep peace time garrisons in Northern Ireland?
It remains to be seen how Sinn Féin’s response will bear up, as investigations are conducted and the security forces attempt to eradicate the dissident threat. Ultimately, Northern Ireland will be a normal society only when unrepentant murderers are not voted into office. But it would be wrong not to recognise when progress is being made or when significant developments occur. McGuinness’ statement was such a development.