On most fronts, Northern Ireland is doing encouragingly well as it seeks to leave the worst aspects of its troubled past behind. It has made unprecedented political progress, its powersharing administration sometimes operating rather better than that of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Westminster.
The devolved government – led by Unionist Peter Robinson and republican Martin McGuinness – has endured some rocky periods and some outright crises, of course. But Stormont’s politicians have become adept at the art of agreeing to disagree, sidestepping confrontations and ensuring that dramas do not escalate. Such techniques, previously unknown in Northern Ireland, have proved invaluable. Yet there is a virus in the machine – in the form of dissident republican splinter groups that have proved infuriatingly persistent in maintaining their futile, but occasionally lethal, violence.
After the dissidents killed 29 people, along with unborn twins, in the 1998 Omagh atrocity, they went quiet, encouraging hopes of a gradual fade into history. But it was not to be. Such groups were soon back presenting a continuing menace that considerable police and MI5 resources are absorbed in countering.
Not only are there sure signs that surveillance and infiltration are delivering results – in the many criminal charges being brought and the successful interception of terrorists on their way to stage attacks. The dissidents are also not winning any arguments.
This is because such groups advance no arguments. They simply put their faith in the belief, long discarded by mainstream republicanism, that guns and bombs can somehow overthrow the settled judgement of practically everyone else that the peace process is the only way ahead. Theirs is, thus, a primitive strategy.
And yet, as Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers acknowledges in her interview with The Independent today, the menace is real. The threat level from such groups has been graded severe for some time, and, she says, that is likely to continue for years to come.
There is some consolation to be found in impersonal statistics. Not so long ago, the violence was claiming around 70 lives a year, but more recently this has fallen to an annual average of four. Not perfect peace, but a dramatic improvement, nonetheless. The huge advance on the bad old days is a telling measurement of the remarkable transformation of the past decade and more.
There are many positive signs. Derry is making a success of its year as UK City of Culture. The G8 summit will be held in Co Fermanagh later this month, during which Barack Obama will be dropping in to congratulate Belfast on its progress. There is a buzz about Belfast these days, and, above all, a strong sense that there will be no going back. Could dissidents make trouble, could backstreet loyalists riot during the looming marching season? Yes. Can they turn back the clock? Absolutely not.
Many relics of the past remain, not least the towering peacelines which still criss-cross parts of the city, monuments to segregation and sectarianism. Ms Villiers, standing in the shadow of one of the walls, acknowledges that it was “almost a shock to see the reality of it”. People living beside them told her, as they tell everyone, that they would like to see them coming down – but not quite yet. Such ghosts of the past will be with Belfast for some time to come. The city endured a long, long war, and it will take time for the hurt and the scars to heal. Most have a sense that a more complete peace is in prospect – though not quite yet.Reuse content