An eight-year-old boy picked up what he described as a "golden pipe thing" in the playground of his primary school in Northern Ireland yesterday. It turned out to be a bomb, which, fortunately, failed to explode. The school, in Antrim, was closed and its 400 children were evacuated. Such was the latest triumph for the madness that is Irish paramilitary violence.
There have been 49 bombs planted in Northern Ireland during the past eight months, compared with 22 during the whole of 2009. This year has also seen 32 shootings in the province as dissident republican groups try to put an end to the peace that has prevailed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Their devices have not just grown more frequent but also more reckless and indiscriminate. On several occasions, children have narrowly escaped the terrorists' attempts to target police officers. Most are the work of dissident republicans, though yesterday's may well have been a revenge attack by loyalist paramilitaries.
In this we perceive a grisly echo of Northern Ireland's 30-year Troubles, in which 3,524 people died before the Provisional IRA finally gave up its armed campaign to unite Ireland and engaged instead in peaceful politics.
For some time there have been a handful of violent dissidents opposed to the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing accord which emerged at the end of that bloody period. Among them are former IRA men robbed of their status by peace. More recently they have been joined by disaffected youths on sink estates who have not shared in the new prosperity that peace has brought to much of the province.
Even so, they are a tiny minority. The Good Friday agreement produced new networks of institutions and rules designed to ensure fairness between the two communities. In 1971 the Unionist government, backed by the old sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary, was still predominantly Protestant. Catholics were second-class citizens. That is no longer the case. Nationalists are not alienated from the state. Indeed, the new Police Service of Northern Ireland has a large and growing Catholic cohort. The nationalist sport of hurling is played in the former bastion of Unionist power at Stormont. There is little sympathy among Catholics for the new bombers. There is no water for these sharks to swim in.
Security sources in Dublin suggest that the resurgence of violence is co-ordinated by organised crime gangs to divert police resources away from tackling the smuggling of fuel and cigarettes and the trafficking of drugs. What is clear, however, is that there are few signs of any real strategy in the dissidents' ranks. Their politics are as primitive as their failed explosive devices.
The security services are right not to be complacent. The bombers are growing in expertise and sophistication. It makes sense to be vigilant, which is why MI5 has boosted by one third the number of its agents in the province. Sobering suggestions that Irish bombers are preparing to bring their campaign to the UK mainland during the party conference season have brought a switch of resources from operations against Islamist extremists.
But we should not overreact. Britain's Special Forces reconnaissance group, which is reported to be operating in Northern Ireland, must not be drawn in to another armed confrontation. There can be no question of reviving the heavy-handed tactics that once characterised our response to republican terrorism.
The bombers would like nothing more than to see British Army patrols back on the streets on Belfast. There must be more mature, and ultimately more effective ways of responding to this brand of pseudo-nationalistic nihilism. And Sinn Fein should be at the vanguard of devising them.Reuse content