Seamus Heaney's play Cure At Troy can be taken as a metaphor for the Hume-Adams talks and the 200-year-old debate between the physical force and the parliamentary tradition in modern Irish republicanism. There, the Greeks, at a critical point in the Trojan war, have to call on the services of Philoctetes, a mighty archer with a magic bow, whom they had previously marooned on an island, stinking from a gangrenous snake-bite, and otherwise poisonous in his social behaviour. In their hour of need, they have to persuade him to forget past censure and rally again to the cause.
For the past two centuries, these two forces have been competing for the hearts and minds of Irish nationalists, mostly in direct opposition, sometimes, as the politicians compromise or the militants camouflage themselves in ideological rhetoric, in an uneasy double harness. After military debacle, people turned to politics: when politics were not seen to deliver, the embittered oldsters of the last generation or the idealistic youngsters of the next again took up the gun.
The great prize at stake for this generation of politicians is to break the cycle of violence in Irish republicanism, and to ensure the steps taken to do this are not simply sowing the seeds for a new crop. The aim must be to lay the ghost of Philoctetes and to break his bow for ever.
The physical-force strain in Irish republicanism is essentially anarchist and nihilist – anti-political rather than non-political. In their reading of modern Irish history, every time the armed struggle was on the point of success, the cause was betrayed by apostasy in the leadership. Their crime was to take the political route, and they will identify the villains serially as Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, Sean MacBride, Cathal Goulding, and it is clear that those who murdered in Antrim and Lurgan are prepared to add the names of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to the list.
It is significant that in the statement claiming responsibility for the murders of the soldiers in Antrim, the Real IRA were at pains to point out that they did not have a political wing, and therefore could not be corrupted. In their simple teleology, the only objective is a United Ireland (no matter what Irish people might think) and the only obstacle the British presence (however defined) which must be removed.
One reason the process has taken so long is the care taken by the Adams-McGuinness leadership to minimise the risk of a split, and to bring the organisation with them in its entirety. In this they have been remarkably successful, if at the cost of equivocation and ambiguity which strains the patience and understanding of the other parties with whom they are trying to do business. The price of trying to speak to two audiences at once is to run the risk of confusing one and infuriating the other. It is a fact, too, that the delay in agreeing political structures (to which Sinn Fein contributed materially) has given the various dissidents time to incubate and to organise, and to enable them to claim that politics has not delivered much by way of benefits to the nationalist population.
The so-called Dissidents are, at present, a collection of small splinter groups. Some had broken from, or been ejected by, the provisionals long before the ceasefires and carried on a sporadic and often bloody conflict with the security forces and with each other. There is also a group calling themselves the Real IRA, who declined to follow the leadership into politics, who refused to give up arms or to back the police. They were responsible for the Omagh atrocity, and have recently been mounting attacks on members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and displaying increased sophistication in bomb manufacture. There are other small groups calling themselves Óglaigh na hÉireann and the Continuity IRA, which claimed responsibility yesterday for the murder of PC Stephen Carroll in Craigavon on Monday.
Finally, and this is the most problematic group, there are young people for whom the bugle in the blood still calls, for whom the gun is more glamorous than politics, who have not been through the mill of conflict and imprisonment, and who have not yet learned to count the cost. At present, these groups are disparate and confined to local areas where the writ of the Adams leadership was never strong. The danger would be if they were now to coalesce under a single leadership to launch a continuing campaign of terror. They do not have the resources of the Provos, or the numbers or the support in the communities, but the terrorist does not have to win to succeed – he simply has to be there.
What they need is (in Mao's words) the water for the fish to swim in, and (in Margaret Thatcher's) the oxygen of publicity. Paradoxically, the notoriety attending the outrages in Antrim and Lurgan may have given them just this. The screening on a local current affairs programme of a video showing armed men training with Armalite assault rifles in a wood was the nearest thing to a recruiting poster they could hope for.
Their aim is to bring down the political structures, to create chaos and to bring armed soldiers back on the streets. They will see the murders as having got them into the headlines and as a means of encouraging others, disillusioned Sinn Fein supporters or impressionable youths, to join them.
There is, therefore, a danger of society talking itself into a crisis which will fulfil the short-term objectives of the terrorists. The main challenge to the authorities is to respond proportionately, even-handedly and within the rule of law. Calls for internment or a draconian military presence are far off the mark and, in fairness, are far from the mind of Sir Hugh Orde.
Saturday's shootings were a shock to the political system; another on Monday looks dangerously like the beginning of a trend. Politicians must wonder whether this is the final, spluttering defiance of the last cycle of violence or the beginning of a new one.
They have, it must be said, done well in producing a collective response. A lot will depend on their ability to marshal public opinion so as to deprive the terrorist of the water of community protection. Sinn Fein has gone far in urging people to give information to the police. It may have to do more. In the meantime, the imperative need for all is to show by their performance in the Assembly that politics works, that they can rise above petty point-scoring and lead a united community into a future in which there is no room for the terrorist.
The writer, a former Irish senator, served on the Patten Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, and as the Northern Ireland OmbudsmanReuse content