The political and media response to the recent shootings in the north of Ireland has been predictable.
The Guardian devoted its front page to the response on March 11 with the headline, “Ireland unites to condemn killers”. Politicians north and south of the border, church and trade union leaders have been vociferous in their denunciations. They have been at one in seeking to unite the population against the attacks.
Sinn Féin was initially slow to respond - there was a delay of 14 hours before it produced a statement. This was framed in cautionary terms and warned the Real IRA and Continuity IRA against undermining the peace process. It seemed to be more of an appeal than a denunciation. But pressure mounted for Sinn Féin to come out with a harder line. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness began to mirror Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party in their abhorrence of the people who carried out the shootings.
McGuinness stood alongside Robinson and chief constable Hugh Orde outside Stormont and pledged his party’s commitment to bringing the perpetrators to justice. He called them “traitors to the entire island of Ireland”, while Adams made an appeal for republicans to give full cooperation to the police in the massive manhunt underway.
There have been national protests against the attacks. David Begg, general secretary of the Irish Trade Union Congress, fronted calls for mass demonstrations. Protests took place in Belfast, Newry, Downpatrick and Derry - the March 11 event in Belfast organised by Unite attracted over 10,000 people.
One of the reasons given for the call for national unity is the spectre of a return to the violence of the republican struggle. But, as Robinson, Orde and southern politicians well know, there is little chance of these shootings provoking such an upsurge. Orde himself condemned the groups as tiny, disparate and completely infiltrated.
He knows that they are splinter groups who have no mass base among Catholics in the north.
These are very different times compared to the late 1960s and 70s. Today Sinn Féin is supposedly in charge of policing, along with the DUP. It helps to run the state. Indeed, as McGuinness has said, by targeting the Police Service of Northern Ireland, CIRA is targeting Sinn Féin itself. He asserted that if he had any personal knowledge of the killers he would immediately pass it on to the police.
Unlike the Provisional IRA, CIRA and RIRA do not have the mass support of working class communities in the north of Ireland. But now the Sinn Féin representatives of the Provisionals are sitting in government. Just like Fianna Fáil in 1921, they have gone from freedom fighters to constitutional nationalists. Their war is over.
But, contrary to what media and bourgeois politicians would have us believe, the north of Ireland was not some haven of harmony and prosperity shattered by these shootings. The ‘peace dividend’ has not been nearly enough and the recession is also hitting hard. There is still tremendous poverty, affecting both republicans and loyalists.
The Good Friday agreement has not brought together Protestants and Catholics. In fact divisions have worsened and tensions deepened, and new ‘peace’ walls have gone up ensuring communities are kept apart. Northern Ireland remains an extremely fractured society.
The PSNI is largely seen as the discredited Royal Ulster Constabulary in a different uniform and many republican parts of Belfast remain ‘no go’ areas - Craigavon being a good example. Disaffected republican youth are often targeted by the police. Raids on homes as part of the recent clampdown on republican dissidents have been strongly criticised by Sinn Féin. It is possible that some of these disaffected youth have been attracted to join breakaway republican groups. That a 17-year-old was arrested in connection with the shooting of the PSNI officer is perhaps testimony to that.
Today Sinn Féin stands fully behind the PSNI. These recent shootings have pushed it into an even stronger and more open identification with Stormont and all it stands for. Its days as freedom fighters are over. It will deal with these splinter groups just as harshly as its colleagues in the DUP.