John O'Dowd: 'There's no way we are going back'

The Sinn Fein politician's condemnation of violence proved a pivotal moment in the week that republican terrorism returned to Northern Ireland
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The Independent Online

John O'Dowd went on BBC Radio Ulster the morning after the death of Constable Stephen Carroll and called the renegade Continuity IRA who killed him "murderers".

The use of the word by the Sinn Fein member of the Stormont Assembly caused an almost palpable communal intake of breath, for in an instant it cut through the heated debate on whether the party had been forthright enough in its condemnation of the dissident violence.

Pressed on whether those who killed the officer were soldiers or murderers, O'Dowd replied bluntly: "They are murderers." Anyone with information on them should give it to the police, he said – a stance later described by a loyalist paramilitary as "astonishing".

It was a pivotal contribution to a pivotal week in the peace process. It produced three security force deaths but also a remarkable new sense of common purpose in shielding the peace process from the likes of the Continuity IRA and Real IRA.

O'Dowd's language drew a new line between the dissidents and the rest of society. "I live just about five minutes from where that shooting happened," he says. "I was surprised that an officer had been killed but I wasn't surprised that something had happened.

"Over the past 10 months there have been a variety of shooting incidents and staged riots. There are some people who have within themselves a spirit of revolt – a tiny small element who just keep things going."

And what drives them? "A variety of things. I believe some of it is to do with an attempt to establish a wee fiefdom in several housing estates, to control other things that are going on – there are egos involved."

The names of the two main dissident groups, Continuity IRA and Real IRA, are meant to convey that they are the genuine heirs of republicanism. The old mainstream IRA has gone, leaving Sinn Fein to pursue its aims in the political arena: in this they have made obvious advances, with seats in the devolved government and in the Belfast Assembly.

The dissidents, however, have next to no political or even community support, as O'Dowd's own electoral performance clearly bears out. In the last Assembly election he topped the poll with more than 7,000 votes. An anti-peace process republican by contrast took just 400 votes.

"They have a support base which isn't what you could call from reliable backgrounds," says O'Dowd of the dissidents.

What does that mean?

"Well, they're interlinking with criminal and antisocial elements – their support base appears to be people who are disaffected. Now I'm not talking in political terms, it's people who are almost outside of society, who would have little or no regard for broad society anyway."

Could he be more specific – what sort of things are they involved in? "Take your pick," he replies. "Car theft, general antisocial behaviour, taking in those who peddle and use drugs. They have a mixture of recruits. There are people going to them who are misguided; there are others falling under their influence because they are involved in a range of other activities. I offered to speak to the so-called dissidents in my area over a year ago – I was told no, they weren't interested in talking."

O'Dowd says he has received no adverse reaction either to his condemnation of the dissidents, or to Martin McGuinness's description of them as "traitors". Instead, he reports support. "I have been pleasantly surprised – I have had people phone me who I've never met before, as well as people who I do know.

"In particular I had one on the phone to me this morning whose family have suffered greatly in the conflict. He served a very long time in prison; he lost loved ones both to loyalists and state forces, and he congratulated me."

Unlike many other Sinn Fein figures such as McGuinness, O'Dowd has no signs of any IRA past. He has never been to prison and, he says, has never been charged with any offence or even arrested.

In his youth, however, he did experience "harassment" on the streets, he claims, from police and troops.

Aged 41, he is one of a new generation of middle-ranking politicians steadily making a name for themselves in the Assembly. In the Stormont building he is prominent for one particular reason since he is, at 6ft 6in, its tallest member. "I'm the tallest man most places I go," he says with a smile. Before politics he worked as a chef – "I wasn't a bad one" – going straight to catering college after attending comprehensive school.

His early departure from education has not affected his self-confidence. Even opponents compliment his performance in the Assembly, and this week he was not afraid to take on John Humphrys on the Today programme.

O'Dowd joined Sinn Fein in 1986, at the age of 18; he did not know it, but that was just when the first surreptitious stirrings of the peace process were under way. His relative youth means he missed some of the worst years of the troubles, but he was an active republican while Sinn Fein and the IRA operated a dual strategy.

He says: "Martin McGuinness once described the peace process as the greatest education ever, and that has been my experience. It has brought us to places where I thought we would never have been."

A family man with children, he lives in Craigavon in Mid-Ulster. The area has a reputation for a high murder rate, poor community relations, recurring marching disputes and riots.

O'Dowd will not talk about his personal security measures. In the past he received a number of formal police warnings that extreme loyalists were intent on targeting him; today Sinn Fein people must be on their guard against dissidents too.

Why did he join Sinn Fein? "Because like all young people I wanted to change the world overnight, and I believed in a united Ireland. I still believe in a united Ireland but I realise you can't change the world overnight.

"I still firmly believe that the course we're on will deliver that, and that's not me being a naive 18-year-old. There's a long, hard path ahead of us, and there'll be many obstacles in our way, but we can overcome these."

Sinn Fein is, of course, in government with the Democratic Unionists, whose leader, Peter Robinson, is completely opposed to a united Ireland. Yet this week he and McGuinness stood shoulder to shoulder. They are now in Washington for St Patrick's Day. They will together meet President Barack Obama to demonstrate that the upsurge in violence has not divided them.

According to O'Dowd: "Peter Robinson has certainly shown leadership and statesman skills. He stepped up to the mark – despite, I've no doubt, many pressures within his own party and his whole community – and he delivered leadership."

But why is it that O'Dowd, who unreservedly advocates support for the reformed police, remains utterly opposed to the Army?

"I'm an Irish republican – there's no way I can accept the British Army back on the streets. What we have is a locally recruited police service which is accountable to the community it serves. It's not there to prop up one political status or another.

"An army is an army. An army isn't there to serve, it is there to enforce. The symbolism of the British Army returning to the streets is a completely wrong one. At one stage we had on the streets of the north 30,000 British soldiers of one type or another. It didn't solve the problem: politics solved the problem."

O'Dowd believes he has gained a better understanding of the police through holding regular meetings with them, and that he has a better understanding of unionists too. Of the police he says: "Through being honest with each other, we have started to build a good community policing structure in our area."

Of unionists he adds: "Through the Assembly I have formed a better understanding of unionists – I now understand them as people, as individuals and where they're coming from far better than I did."

But in this new era of political and security co-operation, does he look back and regret what the IRA did? "Of course I have regrets about what took place over the last 40 years. All those who were involved in the armed campaign contributed to the conflict," he says. "But Sinn Fein set itself the task of ending the conflict, and in partnership with others we contributed to ending it. So, yes, of course there are regrets in this whole sad history that we have, but we set ourselves a task and we brought it to fruition."

In the past O'Dowd has attended IRA funerals. But on Friday he and other republicans attended the funeral of a police officer, in a striking illustration of how far he and Sinn Fein have travelled. He explains: "In attending the funeral we were not only showing solidarity with Constable Carroll's family – we were also giving political leadership.

"After he was shot I looked at my family and said, 'There's no way we are going back to where we were.'

"There is no point in building a power-sharing agreement, a new society and a new policing service just for people to take shots at them and kill people who are part of that new creation.

"These people tried to bring down the peace process and they've failed. What they have done, unintentionally, is to strengthen the resolve of the community and the parties to ensure that the process continues."

Divided among themselves in the struggle for a united Ireland: History of armed resistance

1969 The Catholic civil rights movement leads to a split between the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA who want an armed response to unionist attacks.

1970s Both wings of the IRA mount armed action against the British. The Official IRA disband.

1972 OIRA declares a ceasefire.

1974 Irish National Liberation Army formed by OIRA members against ceasefire.

1986 Formation of the Irish People's Liberation Organisation by expelled members of the INLA.

1986 Formation of the Continuity IRA after a split with the Provisional IRA.

1992 Provisional IRA forcibly disbands the IPLO.

1994 Provisional IRA declares indefinite ceasefire.

1997 Formation of the Real IRA from Provisional IRA opposed to the ceasefire.

1998 Belfast Agreement; Real IRA responsible for Omagh bombing.

2005 Provisional IRA announces end to armed campaign.

2009 Responsibility claimed by Real IRA for shooting of two British soldiers, and by Continuity IRA for murder of policeman.