Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Attacks put pressure on republicans

By John Ware
BBC Panorama reporter

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams
The dissidents' real targets appear to be the republican leaders

Northern Ireland is said by some politicians to be staring into the "abyss" again, after a decade of peace, following the shooting dead of a police officer and two British soldiers.

I think that is premature. The "abyss" in Northern Ireland has a tendency to be moved just as we all think we are about to fall into it.

The killers are dissident republicans belonging to disparate offshoots from the old Provisional IRA. We will need to see if collectively the dissidents can sustain the momentum of the last few days.

Success in their terms would see British troops back on the streets, and high profile anti-terrorist operations by overt and covert branches of the security forces.

But whilst the blood of police officers and soldiers is being shed once again, the real target of the dissidents appears to be their former comrades in arms, Martin McGuinness - now joint first minister of Northern Ireland's devolved government - and Gerry Adams.

Much will depend on how they react to this crisis, the support they give to the security forces and the language they use.

Under scrutiny

These shootings represent the first major test for Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness of the real world responsibilities that go with being in government: the security arm of the British state needs to be allowed to stop, if necessary kill, and certainly arrest the gunmen.

If there are mistakes, as inevitably there often are, Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness will need to keep the republican rump on board whilst not using language that is so mealy-mouthed it gives scope to unionist opponents that when their mettle was tested, they were found wanting.

Police at scene of Masareene shooting
A visit to the Masareene Barracks is likely to be seen as a step too far

Reaction to the murder of the police officer has brought swift condemnation from Sinn Fein but, as with their statement following the murder of two young soldiers, these have been carefully calibrated - referring to "actions" being "counter-productive" and avoiding until pressed the word "murder".

The difficulty for Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness is that, whereas the Police Service of Northern Ireland is a new and therefore "legitimate" creature of the peace process which they signed up to, the British Army is not, and never will be.

It is regarded by all republicans - dissident and pro-peace alike - as an "army of occupation".

This helps explain that while condemnation swiftly followed the shooting of the police officer, in the case of the soldiers it did not come for 14 hours.

Altered images

The symbolism of Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness volunteering the 'M' word unsolicited, or even making a hospital visit or trip to the scene of the soldiers' shooting, would in some ways be even more remarkable than some of the events thrown up by the peace process - themselves so remarkable they have poleaxed many of us who spent much of the 70s reporting the Troubles.

Ian Paisley (left) and Martin McGuinness
Paisley and McGuinness became known as the Chuckle Brothers

Perhaps the most abiding image of that transformation is that of Dr Ian Paisley, whose impassioned defence of Protestant unionism attracted epithets like "malign colossus" and "man of wrath", standing side by side with Mr McGuinness.

These men had replaced a lifetime of visceral loathing with laughter and jokes to such an extent that they became known - not a little affectionately - as The Chuckle Brothers.

Mr McGuinness has continued to extend the hand of friendship to Mr Paisley's successor as first minister, Peter Robinson. He has been seen standing at his side referring to him as "Peter" alongside the PSNI chief constable.

Inevitably, however, unionists and republicans still squabble over symbolism - there is still a distressingly large tribal element to politics in Northern Ireland, and probably will be for another generation or two.

Republicans have also tried to re-write history, with Mr Adams recently claiming the "use of armed actions were never about building the United Ireland, they were always about protesting or standing up to British policy".

Brave step

Well, that is not how some of us remember it. I think back to Mr Adams' formulation of "The Long War" in the mid-1970s when he and Mr McGuinness said that if they just kept going, they would win by sickening the British.

That held for another decade before Mr Adams realised that a lot of people were going to their graves for no good reason.

Having seen this ahead of almost everyone in the republican movement, it took some courage on the part of Mr Adams and Mr McGuiness to lead some 90% of republicans out of their cul-de-sac.

Omagh bombing scene
The Omagh bombing cost the Real IRA a great deal of support

Today, Provisional IRA leaders have committed themselves to pursuing a united Ireland by peaceful democratic means.

But those few republicans who did not follow Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness have never forgiven them for their multiple acts of heresy, splitting in 1997 and taking some Provisional IRA munitions with them.

What little traction the Real IRA had was soon lost in 1998 by planting a 500lb car bomb in Omagh that killed 29 people and two unborn children.

Since emerging from their purdah, the dissidents have largely confined their attacks to members of the security forces.

They had relied on the spectacle of Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness "selling out" to deliver them young recruits to ramp up their campaign.

It has not worked out like that - even after Mr McGuinness visited the sickbed of a police officer who survived a dissident booby car bomb last May.

Shaking the foundations

But visiting injured young police officers, and especially a new Catholic recruit to the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, the most virile symbol of a new Northern Ireland order, could still be squared with the republican faithful.

After all, former IRA members now on the Northern Ireland Policing Board get to appoint senior police officers to probably the most transparent and accountable force in the world.

Forensic officers at scene of Craigavon shooting
The strength of the peace process will be sorely tested if the attacks continue

The British Army, though, is different. The symbolism of IRA leaders giving legitimacy to the organisation in such an intimate way through a visit to the crime scene or a hospital bed probably remains a bridge too far.

Just before the weekend attack, we learned that Army special forces were again operating in Northern Ireland, at the behest of the PSNI chief constable to keep "eyes on" what he describes as "extremely dangerous people".

Mr Adams warned Sir Hugh Orde that while he could "count on the popular support of the vast majority" of republicans, this would only apply "provided he does the right thing" - which is a peacetime version of the IRA's wartime "Troops Out" slogan.

And yet, if anything, Sir Hugh is now more likely to call for reinforcements of those undercover troops.

For once the Real IRA has its hated former comrades right where they want them: in the crosshairs of the Faustian pact Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness have made with their former enemy, the British, and unionists.

Make no mistake, this attack against the police officer and the young sappers, the youngest of whom would still have been at primary school when the last British soldier was shot by the IRA, was aimed right at the heart of the republican leadership.

The fact that, so far, their unionist opponents seem to have cut them some slack bodes well for the peace process.

Quite how enduring is the strength of its foundations, however, will only become apparent if the dissidents maintain the bloody momentum of the last few days.

My guess is that the foundations will hold.

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