Kevin Meagher provides analysis on the aftermath of the tragic murder of Ronan Kerr, by dissident Republicans in Northern Ireland.
The murder of constable Ronan Kerr in Omagh, County Tyrone, last Saturday has left Northern Ireland’s republican community “seething” according to Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.
Republican dissidents are widely blamed for his killing, which is similar to previous attacks which saw constable Stephen Carroll shot dead in March 2009 and constable Peadar Heffron maimed when a bomb exploded under his car in January 2010.
Like them, constable Kerr was Catholic. His selection, like theirs, seemingly a message from republican dissidents to Northern Ireland’s Catholic nationalist community not to participate in the institutions of the state – even the reformed ones ushered into being by 1998’s Good Friday Agreement.
A recent recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) – the reconstituted, cross-commnunity successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary – constable Kerr was described “a good Irishman and a good Irish policeman” by deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness.
His murder is a throwback to the tactics of The Troubles when the Provisional IRA regarded Catholic contractors dealing with state forces as “legitimate targets”.
Dissidents now believe something similar in relation to Catholic members of the PSNI.
However the dissident republican groupings – Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann – have nothing approaching the reach the Provisional IRA had during the Troubles – either in military capability or public support. Despite their lethal intent they remain politically neutered with no coherent message other than nihilistic opposition to the prevailing “partionist” political dispensation.
Rather, the dissidents’ short-term political goal appears to be limited to peeling away grassroots support from Sinn Fein, casting them as sell-outs to long-cherished republican goals. But without a rival political message themselves, the dissidents recidivist tactics simply allows Sinn Fein to emphasise its own modernising credentials, as the party redefines its brand and political positioning against the backward looking hardliners.
Hence the uncompromising response from Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams who said many republicans were “seething with anger” at the killing.
He went on to say:
“They just see this as a futile action. And some of those are very, very hard-boiled republicans who have been through the hardest part of this struggle over the past 30 or 40 years, who have suffered themselves grievously. They just feel outright anger at what has occurred.”
Asked at the launch of Sinn Fein’s assembly election campaign yesterday whether dissidents were “traitors” he told the Irish Times they are “worse than that.”
Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was equally blunt, encouraging republicans to report anything they know about dissident activity to the PSNI – a sea change in republican attitudes to the police. Moreover, McGuinness lambasted the dissidents for waging “a useless war against peace.” He added:
“They are enemies of the peace, they are the enemies of the people of Ireland.”
There is a clear ratcheting up of Sinn Fein rhetoric in relation to the dissidents. Initially wary of locking horns and provoking a split in republican ranks, Sinn Fein’s leaders have become emboldened, recognising there is little to be gained from soft pedalling on irreconcilable critics who risk damaging Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness’ carefully constructed political project to move Irish republicanism into political republicanism.
But Sinn Fein’s leaders know they have to handle the dissidents carefully. Although their numbers of activists are measured in the mid-hundreds, the dissident retain an emotional pull for a much wider constituency is the Irish republican community; one that has made a massive political journey over the past 15 years and still harbours doubts about the pay-off.
Part of the problem is a lack of equity invested in the assembly as a result of the stop-start politics of the past decade. For republicans, a great deal of Northern Ireland’s ‘new politics’ is still taken on trust. The thousands of people in poor republican communities who feel they have not benefited from Northern Ireland’s peace dividend provide dissident groups with a pool of potential recruits. Here Sinn Fein’s political problem is more prosaic and familiar to centre-left political movements the world over: how do you manage expectations and sell a reformist agenda to people who want to see radical change?
Accusations of “selling out” remain potent, especially as it has taken so long to get the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement up and running for a prolonged period. Last week saw the assembly conclude its first full four-year term. A small but significant landmark.
Republican politics is replete with its own landmarks. Next month sees the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, leader of the republican hunger strikers in the Maze prison in 1981, ten of whom starved to death in order to secure political status. Dissidents see themselves as men of similarly unbending convictions.
However the murder of a 25-year old “good Irish policeman” has revulsed all corners of Northern Irish society.
Ronan Kerr was proud member of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) – one of the pillars of traditional Irish culture and society. In narrow political terms his murder is another massive own goal from the directionless dissidents; driving a wedge between them and the community they purport to represent.
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