Minority Republican organisations have planted 49 bombs and been responsible for 32 shootings in Northern Ireland over the last eight months. All that stands between the bombs they set off and a sizeable slaughter of civilians, police or soldiers is pure chance. With each bomb the chances increase that there will be such a slaughter.
Last week three children were slightly injured by a bomb intended to kill policemen planted outside a school. As things are going, it is only a matter of time. One of the three organisations mounting the present campaign, the “Real IRA”, a then-recent splinter from the Provisional IRA, set off the 1998 bomb in Omagh which killed 29 people.
These three small Republican militarist groups are opposed to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and to the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing Belfast government that came out of it and now rules Northern Ireland.
They denounce the Provisional IRA and its leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, as traitors and see them as the latest in a long parade of such turncoats: who made peace with the British without achieving a united Ireland and collaborate with them now.
The situation today is superficially reminiscent of the period before the eruption of the Provisional IRA war in 1971.
The three groups are: the Real IRA, the “Continuity IRA”, the result of a 1986 breakaway, and Oglaich na hEireann (“Soldiers of Ireland”), which seems to have taken shape recently. These three groups are a by-product of three things.
One, the military defeat of the Provisional IRA and their acceptance of that defeat. When in the years after the Good Friday Agreement the British and Irish governments were demanding that the Provisional IRA should disband, Gerry Adams responded with: “what's the point of disbanding the IRA, when another IRA will soon take its place?”
Something like that is happening.
Two, the militarist Republicans see Northern Ireland as “British-occupied Ireland”. Politically speaking, they refuse to “see” the Protestant majority in the Six Counties, or recognise that they, not Britain, are the decisive opponents of a united Ireland.
And three, of the fact that Northern Ireland is not only the expression of self-determination by the Protestant minority in Ireland, but also an artificial creation of British imperialism and the Protestant-Unionist majority in the Six County area. A large minority of the population of the Six Counties are Catholic nationalists. Not only in the centre of Belfast, which is in the heartland of the Protestant majority section of north-east Ulster, but also where the Catholic nationalists are the majority – in a large swathe of Six County territory, along the border with the independent Irish state.
Given a free choice they would have been part of the Catholic nationalist state. In 1919-1922, and afterwards, they were kept in the Six County state by the brute force of the British army and the Protestant sectarian militias.
For its first 50 years Northern Ireland was ruled by a Protestant sectarian government which ill-treated the Catholic minority.
The Good Friday Agreement set up an intricate bureaucratic political network of institutions and rules-of-functioning designed to ensure sectarian “fairness” as between Catholic and Protestant by way of compulsory power-sharing in government.
A military campaign, even a strong and effective one, is not enough to trigger a war like the Provo War. The Catholics then were second class citizens and were not prepared to go on peacefully tolerating it.
The Six County Catholics are not alienated from the state. In fact they probably identify with it more than the Protestants do. The old sectarian, very heavily Protestant, Royal Ulster Constabulary has gone and is replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in which there is a large and growing Catholic presence.
There are now two constitutional nationalist parties standing solidly against militarist Republicanism. The Belfast power sharing government includes both of the once extreme poles of the Protestant and Catholic communities – the Paisleyites and Sinn Fein (now effectively incorporating the IRA). On both sides now the extreme opposition to the present arrangement are small minorities.
The decisive thing in the explosion of war in 1971 was that both Protestant and Catholic communities and their extremes bounced off each other like careening billiard balls. The Belfast Unionist government, backed by the British army, was still Protestant sectarian. Internment, indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, in 1971 was used exclusively against Catholics. It gave the Provisional IRA a tremendous surge of Catholic support. The British army was pitted against the Catholics and alienated them greatly.
Today nothing like that exists. To succeed, the militarists would have to set Protestant and Catholic populations actively against each other. The key thing will be how the Protestants react to the Republican militarists. Yet the Omagh bomb in 1998 helped consolidate the Good Friday Agreement rather than provoking the Protestants, half of whom then opposed the Agreement.
But much is of course unforeseeable. The economic slump and large-scale unemployment is greatly alienating sections of the youth, who are made to feel they have gained very little socially from the Good Friday Agreement. That discontent feeds into the militarist groups.
•A collection of articles, “What’s wrong in the Six Counties? Reasons for the developing Northern Ireland crisis”: