Fifteen dead in Germany, ten dead in Alabama … two random mayhem massacres ended the two day run of “Troubles to return?” headlines in the UK, after two separate attacks in northern Ireland this week. On Monday, two British soldiers were executed outside a base as they came out to pick up a pizza, and the “Real IRA” claimed responsibility.

The next day, a Northern Ireland cop, called out to a town in Armagh, and was killed by the other dissident faction, the “Continuity IRA”. With two other factions — Saoirse na hÉireann and Óglaigh na hÉireann — still out there, everyone was nervously waiting for a third or fourth hit, the papers were filled with cod histories of the struggles, will it happen again, return of the hard men etc etc.

Reading the pages of breathless prose, you could be forgiven for thinking that the London papers actually wanted the Troubles to return, so long as they remained in Ireland, or limited themselves to the occasional London bomb. After all, there are only two activities in which the British really feel themselves — queuing and being bombed — and the IRA’s predilection for hitting transport hubs combines the two exactly. Evaporated in a queue is to the British what getting shot by your lover’s lesbian girlfriend is to the French.

The Irish are less enthusiastic, for obvious reasons, and also less hysterical about what the attacks represent. Unprecedentedly, the Sinn Fein leadership came out to say that people should dob the shooters in, with Martin McGuinness dropping the IRA who? act (“what do the IRA think well you’d have to ask them wouldn’t you me I’m not in the IRA I’ll just pop behind this curtain and talk to the IRA here they are gottle of Guinness gottle of Guinness”) saying plainly “I was in the IRA, but the war’s over”.

The distinction is obvious, but it’s not one the UK papers are wont to stress, preferring the idea that the Provisional IRA campaign from the 70s on was nothing more than a bunch of psychopaths on the tear, and that this was simply more of the same.

But the obvious difference is that the current groups have no substantial base within the community, unlike the PIRA, which had 100 or so active sympathisers, for each of its 1500 or so “active service units” ie. individual soldiers. It also had a legitimate political argument — that the very creation of Northern Ireland was a colonialist gerrymander, partitioning what was an obviously historically unified entity — and a political strategy to overcome it.

Indeed, the leadership of the PIRA had been effectively trying to get out of a military/urban guerrilla strategy since the late 1970s — having realised that if the Brits weren’t going to be thrown out by the “Vietnam in Derry” strategy of mass car bombs in the early 70s, then a longer campaign wasn’t going to do it either. Effectively much of the bombing in the 80s and 90s was directed less at the British than at reassuring the militant parts of the outfit that the PIRA was still a fighting unit, while its leadership went about the task of building up Sinn Fein.

That will be of small comfort to those who lost relatives in the last 15 years of the armed campaign, but it had the effect of avoiding a split right down the middle — one which would have left an intransigent militant group with several hundred soldiers, a level of broad public support, and arms caches still in commission. For much of this time, the British government was in effective collusion with this strategy. The PIRA weren’t shy about eliminating elements on the wilder side of them — in the early 90s they wiped out a group called the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation (yes it was Life of Brian with guns) in one weekend, so as to leave no organisation that could act as a pole for dissident militant sympathies.

The obvious fear is that the attacks will prompt Loyalist reprisals — but more alarming still is the ghost that haunts radical Irish politics, that of legitimacy, and of bearing the unbroken tradition of an IRA government in absentia of the island of Ireland, against which all other authorities — the Dail, Stormont, Westminster — are illegitimate. When the PIRA emerged from the IRA proper in the late 1960s, they gained the blessing of the veterans of the 1916-20 revolution. When the Continuity IRA split from the PIRA in 1986, they found about the last surviving rebel to confer legitimacy on them.

There’s none of those left now to bless the “Real IRA”, who split in 1996, but the idea of legitimacy grounded in non-recognition of partition has an occult power over Irish politics, and any sort of regular conflict leaves the Sinn Fein leadership hugely exposed, effectively acting as agents of the British state, urging on the police etc. But they’ve gone too far to retreat now. Their strategy has been based on the gradual weakening of Union ties in the context of the EU combined with higher birth rates, hoping that Scotland will pull the UK apart, to be followed by Irish referendums north and south, unification, at which point the Proddys will start blowing things up.

It’s a funny old world … unless you’re a f…. no, maybe not.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey