Another morning. And we have woken up to learn of another murder in Northern Ireland. Last night Constable Stephen Carroll was gunned down by republicans in Craigavon as he responded to a call for help, lodged by a frightened member of the public. It goes without saying that another family has been bereaved. On this occasion a wife no longer has a husband; children have been deprived of their father. And to what purpose? As far as I can see, it is purely because the most extreme recidivist elements of republicanism want to destroy the beginnings of normality in this country. They cannot bear the thought that people in Northern Ireland might live their lives without murderous interruption – in peace.
O’Neill observes that despite the glib guarantees with which Gordon Brown responded to Saturday’s Massareene Barracks murders, we cannot be confident that the perpetrators, of that particular attack or of the killing last night, will ever be brought to justice. Indeed the Prime Minister’s words brought to mind the aftermath of the Omagh bombing, during which Tony Blair made similar assurances. In order to apprehend the murderers, the PSNI will require full, unequivocal cooperation from the republican communities in which terrorists have previously been harboured. Although members of Sinn Féin have, up to a point, recommended that the authorities should be furnished with information, that message was not delivered immediately and without reservation.
The truth is that the Real and Continuity IRAs, republican terrorists acting under whatever title, CAN do irreparable damage to the peace process. Although mainstream republicanism is pledged to support policing and justice, it believes its function is primarily to hold the police service to account. It is not chiefly animated by a desire to help deliver more effective policing or a safer society. This oppositional role necessarily puts Sinn Féin in conflict with attempts by Sir Hugh Orde and his force to anticipate and prevent attacks by dissident groups.
To a degree the provisionals are constrained both by their own history and by the mood of communities from which they draw their support (as an anonymous commenter intimates on yesterday’s thread). Can Sinn Féin endorse wholeheartedly a rigorous security response without losing part of its electoral base? Indeed, can Sinn Féin endorse wholeheartedly a rigorous security response without providing succour to the groups which have carried out these vile crimes?
I acknowledge that there is an element of squaring a circle to this dreadful conundrum. Republican communities, whilst not (for the most part) offering explicit approval of the murders which have occurred, will remain predisposed to construe any tightening of security, or even a determined attempt to root out the killers, as disproportionate. Sinn Féin, even should its leaders be inclined towards a different interpretation, will feel obliged to anticipate and mirror the mood of its supporters.
Of course the truth is that many years of virulent anti security forces, anti British government, anti-law and order rhetoric has shaped community attitudes, which in turn have boxed Sinn Féin into this corner. If Sinn Féin has a problem, it is largely of its own making. It is, to be quite blunt, a problem within republicanism. Albeit one which could have baleful consequences for everyone in Northern Ireland.