Behind The Scenes In Northern Ireland

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Most media coverage of the recent killings in Northern Ireland has, with a few notable exceptions, been woeful.

In many cases, journalists seem content to publish unchecked facts and offer scant reference to the complex historical and social forces that frame and inform what is happening. In the worst cases, members of the British press have even descended into vitriol and anti-Irish racism.

To put these recent events into context, one must acknowledge the tumultuous state of politics in Northern Ireland today.

A crucial development leading to the current situation was the transfer of responsibility for national security in the province in October 2007, when MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence organisation, took over from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

MI5 is, in the Irish context, an incendiary and unaccountable force. MI5 has been linked in the Stalker (1986), Stevens (2003) and Cory (2004) inquiries, not only for supporting the implementation of the shoot-to-kill policy, but for being covertly involved in organising and resourcing death squads in Northern Ireland.

The findings of these inquiries have never been fully released, which suggests a fundamental schism between the political and intelligence communities in the United Kingdom. Consequently, neither MI5 nor any British government department has ever been held accountable for its covert operations in Northern Ireland. And they probably never will be — in 2005 a special law was passed through British Parliament which effectively banned public inquiries into illegal activities conducted by the British state during The Troubles.

In addition to being under the control of MI5, the Northern Irish community is now also subject to covert surveillance by the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), a new body set up by the British military. The arrival of this regiment was announced by Chief Constable Hugh Orde just two days before the recent killing of two British soldiers in Antrim.

The highly secretive SRR is a 400-member regiment that is drawn from three different British Army units and is a continuation of the 14th Intelligence Company which (among other things) has been implicated in organising death squads in Northern Ireland.

The now central role of MI5, coupled with the recent introduction of the SRR, is seen by many republicans as the re-militarisation of the north, and as such is a serious provocation.

A third and vital dimension to this context is the actual state of republicanism in Northern Ireland. From a republican point of view, the peace process can be seen as a monument to the complete capitulation of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. Sinn Fein is now a republican organisation that has no republican politics: it accepts partition, it allowed the modernisation of the thoroughly sectarian and murderous Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and it facilitated the decommissioning of PIRA weapons and consented to the re-establishment of the Northern Irish Parliament.

One question that now haunts many nationalist/republican communities is this: Does the peace process necessarily demand the end of republicanism, in all of its guises, as a political force on the island of Ireland?

Moreover — and this is not often discussed — Sinn Fein has now taken on the role of enforcing "the peace" in nationalist/republican areas. When Sinn Fein "polices" its own communities, the British and Irish states show a willingness to turn a blind eye.

It is in the context of a re-militarisation of Northern Ireland, coupled with the demoralising defeat of republicanism, that we can begin to understand the recent "dissident" republican killings of soldiers and police officers.

Beyond failing to describe its full context, much media coverage continues to misrepresent the actual nature of the problem itself. The media does a profound disservice to democracy and the fragile peace process when it reduces the conflict in and about Northern Ireland to being, at root, a sectarian dispute. To put it simply, the conflict in Ireland is about the ongoing decolonisation process that began in earnest in 1916, and it remains the best prism through which we can view and decipher the complex movements of the region’s many actors.

It is through this historical perspective that we can begin to understand the way in which responses to the recent events are likely to frame the future. The day after the the young soldiers were killed, Martin McGuinness — who was once the second-in-command of the PIRA in Derry and is now the Deputy First Minister in a devolved power-sharing government — stood on the steps of the Parliament building at Stormont, flanked by Chief Constable Hugh Orde, head of the PSNI and Peter Robinson, the First Minister from the DUP, and said:

"I was a member of the IRA but that war is over now. The people responsible for last night’s incident are clearly signalling that they want to resume or restart that war. Well I deny their right to do that."

Moreover, he called for republicans to support police efforts to hunt down these "dissident" factions of the IRA who he called "traitors to the island of Ireland".

It is important that we try to understand how these words and images will reverberate throughout nationalist/republican communities in the north. The Provisional IRA, which McGuinness has been a member of since its inception, framed and differentiated itself in response to the perceived capitulation and treachery of the Official IRA.

But how qualitatively different are McGuinness’s words from those of the late Cathal Goulding, a former chief of staff of the IRA and the first chief of staff of the Official IRA, who declared his support for the use of supergrasses (informers) to root out the Provisional IRA in 1983? Not all republicans will miss the clear echoes of comments such as those in McGuinness’s words, telling them to accept their defeat and dob in fellow republicans to the police.

It may also be useful to note how the word "dissident" works in the Irish context. Pádraig Pearse and James Connolly, both executed after the 1916 Easter Uprising, were "dissidents". Bobby Sands was a dissident. At one time, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were also dissidents. These "dissidents" became mainstream as a consequence of state terrorism — something the British state still seems unable to recognise. In Irish history, it is the violent overreaction and collective forms of punishment meted out by the British state on nationalist/republican communities that has driven previously uncommitted nationalists to embrace the cause of the "dissidents".

In 1969, when The Troubles re-ignited, the British army was called in to defend civil order, which at the time meant protecting nationalist areas from rampaging Loyalist /Unionist mobs. At the time the IRA was in complete disarray. It was the civil rights movement, inspired by events in the United States, that demanded fundamental changes to the sectarian state, particularly its treatment of working-class nationalists.

These moderate demands were never addressed quickly enough, and often civil rights protesters were met with batons, jail sentences and forms of collective punishment. The civil rights movement died on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, when the British Army murdered 14 unarmed nationalist protesters. It was on this day the "dissidents" of the Provisional IRA began the long, violent journey to becoming mainstream.

It could be argued that after the recent killings, the response by the British state has been somewhat heavy handed. Initially, 11 people, including a 17-year-old, were detained under suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities. They were held under new anti-terrorism laws, which allow suspects to be kept for 28 days without charge. Six of the suspects were released this week after a successful High Court challenge to their detention without charge. However, one of the six, prominent republican Colin Duffy, was immediately rearrested.

There have also been raids by police on homes in Lurgan in County Armagh, and in Belfast, which were followed by youths rioting against police. Recently, the PSNI obtained a "block warrant" which enables them to raid each and every home in the Drumbeg and Meadowbrook areas of Craigavon in County Armagh. If collective punishment starts again in Northern Ireland, expect more trouble.

With MI5 at the helm, a new counter-terrorism unit active on the streets of Northern Ireland, a gutted republican movement struggling to find relevance and "dissident" IRA factions killing soldiers and police, the peace process now hangs in the balance.

Add to these circumstances the threat of an economic tsunami exacerbating tensions in working class neighbourhoods, and the question becomes: Can the communities and governments of Ireland and Britain move past their old failed strategies and finally deal with the border issue?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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