Violence and after

A forensic officer examines the scene at the Palace army barracks on the outskirts of Holywood in Belfast

The bomb that went off near the MI5 headquarters in Holywood last night didn’t do much damage but it does bring into focus a number of issues.

One seized on greedily this morning by Alban Magennis of the SDLP is the comparison between the dissident republicans, who it’s presumed planted the bomb, and the IRA campaign of the 1970s and 1980s. Alban, with an eye on the Westminister election, declared both campaigns – the IRA and the dissident republicans – equally futile. He may be right. Maybe if there’d been no violent campaign against the British army and the RUC, we’d have the same power-sharing Executive that now operates from Stormont. But it’s hard to rid oneself of the suspicion that the IRA’s threat of violence and actual violence had considerable bearing on the startling differences in the old pre-Troubles Stormont set-up and what we now have.

The second issue is, what sense does the dissidents’ campaign of violence make, if any? All political parties, including Sinn Fein, would answer ‘None’. If the heavily-armed IRA wasn’t able to dislodge the British, what hope the puny Real IRA or the Continuity IRA? It’s a good point but it depends on things not changing, which of course they do, all the time. At present the Real IRA can make little military impact on the British army or the PSNi or the other elements of the crown here, as they would see it. But that was the case with the IRA in the early days of the Troubles. Then, largely owing to British insensitivity, stupidity and cruelty, nationalist public opinion or a significant section of it swung in behind republicanism. Don’t be too sure that, over time, the Real IRA won’t win similar backing, especially if, as so often in the past, the British have failed to learn lessons from history.

The third point, and one I’m sure the dissidents are very clear about, is the tradition of armed resistance. The Real IRA and the Continuity IRA are incapable of dislodging or even threatening the British army, so in that sense Martin McGuinness is right to say they are militarily useless. But their existence in however peripheral a way preaches a key lesson very loudly, and it is that Britain in Ireland responds only to armed action. There are a lot of nationalists, and maybe unionists too, who believe that to be the case. What should be done, if that belief is true? Ah – sin sceal eile…

2 Responses to Violence and after

  1. fathomline April 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    Jude, your historical comparison is not reasonable. The question is whether we would have had a version of Sunningdale without the Provo violence. And the answer is yes, eventually and an awful lot sooner and more cheaply in human blood than what we got. More to the point the Provo campaign was never designed to get what we now have got.

  2. Chris April 12, 2010 at 8:22 pm #


    It is reasonable, not least since Sunningdale and the entire notion of all-Ireland institutional links did not survive the unionist backlash in the 70s. This was at a time when the flying of the Irish National flag was effectively banned in the 6 Counties and when the RUC remained very much a unionist militia, alongside the many other full time and part time local unionist militias tied to the British military.

    The IRA campaign was not designed to be pulled short of Irish reunification, but it is ridiculous to suggest that it had no impact on transforming the political horizon, ensuring that the British government could not impose an internal settlement short of the considerable changes required to level the playing field between unionism and nationalism in the North.