After 13 years, Catholic faith in the Good Friday Agreement wears thin

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Spend time in Coalisland near the shores of Lough Neagh and it is easy to forget you are in Northern Ireland.

There are eight Gaelic football and hurling clubs and children attend Catholic schools and learn Irish. Attendance at Mass is higher than many parts of the Republic.

Thirteen years ago today, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, it was a very different place: there were British soldiers and armoured personnel carriers, a sign that this corner of the North was a hotbed of IRA activity. That has changed. But recently Coalisland – considered to be the embodiment of the "peace dividend" – has shown signs that Northern Ireland still struggles to put the troubles behind it.

Earlier this month, police discovered a cache of guns, detonators, explosives and parts for rocket launchers. They were linked to the murder of the young Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr four days earlier on 2 April. More worrying still was the reaction of some in the community to the killing. "He joined the police, so what does he expect?" said one man on hearing the news. Not everyone is prepared to forget the past.

For some, the dividends from the IRA ceasefire, the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin's involvement in policing have not delivered what was promised. They believe that Sinn Féin is no longer being true to republicanism and that they must continue to carry the fight to "the Brits".

Coalisland has played a colourful part in the history of The Troubles. The area's staunch republican outlook dates back to the Easter Rising in 1916, the first ever civil rights march in 1968, a constant culture of being stopped by the RUC and UDR at checkpoints and a night that ended with the parish chapel in flames after the killing of four IRA men by the SAS.

Francie Molloy, a Sinn Féin councillor and Mid-Ulster MLA, was a steward at the civil rights march and says he understands why a residue of resentment for the British government and forces still exists in the area. "That night when we were coming home after the civil rights march, people were looking forward to joining the IRA," he said.

Most people in the area were broadly sympathetic to the peace process and the Omagh bombing did much to dampen the appeal of dissident republican groups. But as time has gone on, and people have seen Sinn Féin leaders joining government with Ian Paisley's still hated Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), resentment has grown.

Locals who were members of Sinn Féin have left the party in favour of republican societies.

A former provisional IRA member from the area, who spent 10 years in jail for IRA activity, believes the set-up does not allow for any opposition, and that Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have deserted the party's grass roots. He says he would be one of at least 100 men in the area imprisoned for IRA activity since the 1950s.

He argues that Sinn Féin is no longer the republican, socialist party it once was and is angry it is in coalition with the DUP. He condemns Constable Kerr's murder, but says he knows why it happened: "An armed campaign is madness. But I do believe at certain times people have the right to use force. I wouldn't be shocked if another policeman was killed."

There are also the economic problems. Unemployment has risen 5.8 per cent in the area in the past year. This is significant because boredom led young men to join the IRA in the past.

The day after the killing of Constable Kerr, a local parish priest, Father Benny Fee, based his sermon on the murder. "You would have heard a pin drop," he said. He also pointed out that 20 years ago there could have been a walkout by the congregation. However, Father Fee does accept that anger and resentment still resonates in the area. On Easter Sunday, Sinn Féin will hold its annual Easter parade but the breakaway republican societies will hold their own events. The elections on 5 May will show if Sinn Féin has lost a significant amount of support in the area.

However, as the former IRA man pointed out, those who oppose Sinn Féin have no alternative party to go to, so their views are not represented in Stormont. And therein lies the problem in the Coalisland area and for so-called dissident republicans as a whole.

Constable Kerr murder

Police investigating the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr charged a man with terrorism offences last night.

The suspect, 33, is accused of possession of firearms and explosives with the intent to endanger life and possession of articles likely to be of use in terrorism.

The suspect will appear at Dungannon Magistrates' Court, Tyrone, on Saturday.

He is the first individual to be charged. Two men, including a 26-year-old arrested in Scotland, were freed "unconditionally" on Tuesday by detectives investigating the murder.