<Northern Ireland: Watching and Waiting

Northern Ireland: Watching and Waiting

The old saying, ‘Who will watch the watchers?’ (or is it the Guardians?) seems to be apposite for, on the 17th March, several men, by‑passing (or using) recognised security procedures, entered the bastion of Northern Ireland’s Police Service at Castlereagh in East Belfast, notorious for its interrogation methods in the past (when it was the RUC), tied up one of the duty personnel and ransacked and purloined some of its files.

About to retire (now retired) Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan stated that that nothing giving information about the identity of informers or which would endanger their lives was missing and that because the intruders seemed to know their way around the buildings that it possibly might be an inside job.

Consequently there are rumours that the culprits who effected the ‘break in’ could be members of other security agencies such as MI5 or MI6 or even the Army Intelligence Service.

However, notwithstanding such cloak and dagger speculations, five people associated with Republicanism, from Derry and Belfast, were arrested, interrogated, and released without charge. One other person, who worked inside the complex, was arrested and later charged with unauthorised possession of of documents which could be useful to illegal organisations.

Subsequently, the former Chief Constable of the RUC has publicly advised members of the Special Branch that they should take special care as information on their identity may have been taken during the ‘break in’.

The Secretary of State, Dr. John Reid, has set up an inquiry, to run parallel to the police force’s own investigation, to assess the serious security implications in the way entry was achieved.

The Easter parades in Belfast by the ‘Apprentice Boys’ in the Ardoyne area (despite protests) and on the Lower Ormeau Road (which was subject to police restrictions) went off without serious problems.

Nevertheless there were later reports that Loyalist groups, dressed in Celtic football team strip or colours, carried out firebomb attacks on the police and of sporadic clashes between Loyalist and Republican groups in north Belfast, Duncairn Gardens, and off Queen Street.

After much uncertainty, whether or not the arrest of Republicans suspected of having made an incursion into Castlereagh (despite strong protests by the IRA and Sinn Féin) might get in the way, it has been confirmed by General De Chastelain, Head of the Decommissioning Body, that a further significant amount of IRA weapons has been put irretrievably beyond use.

The IRA in its statement said that they had done so in order to stabilise, safeguard and sustain the peace process. This news was welcomed, not only by Gerry Adams on behalf of Sinn Féin, but also by David Trimble for the Ulster Unionists. Some people, said he, said it wouldn’t happen but it has happened, it was a significant indication confirming that decommissioning was an ongoing process.

While one can feel more sure now that mainstream Republicans are more attached to the political process than before, recent events suggest that dissident sections are still capable of endangering support for the Good Friday Agreement among the Unionist community, and this is reflected in the fact that there are no signs of loyalist paramilitaries destroying any of their armaments.

For instance, the media have carried reports that a car was stopped near the route of the royal funeral procession in London (9 April 2002) but was driven off rapidly before police could question the driver. It was later found abandoned and burnt out, with evidence of fertiliser, a constituent used as an explosive by the Real IRA.

There have also been attacks on County Down police stations, one of them in Ardglas. Pipe bombs were hurled at the buildings causing quite a lot of damage although there were no injuries reported from these incidents which occurred on Saturday 13th April.

During the same weekend a commemoration meeting took place in Dublin attended by Republican families who had lost some members over the years since 1969. It is estimated that around two and a half thousand people were present.

Gerry Adams, as Sinn Féin President, was a guest speaker and his presence has been was criticised by Unionist spokespersons including Jeffrey Donaldson MP. I have not seen the actual text of the Adams speech or indeed that of the Westminster Unionist MP’s comment.

In one report in the media it is said he claimed that Republicans as well as Unionists in the spirit of reconciliation should both be afforded the space and the opportunity to honour their dead, as the two communities seek to advance and maintain the momentum of the peace process.

Arising, it would seem, from the recent decommissioning by the IRA which the First Minister, Trimble, saw as a positive advance, he has addressed the ‘Loyalist Commission’ which consists of a number of representatives of their paramilitary groups. He urged them to follow the Republicans by putting some of the armoury in their possession into the decommissioning process and to reinstate their ceasefires. At the time of writing no indication of their intentions has been given.

It has been alleged that the IRA decommissioning was enacted to boost Sinn Féin's chances in the Repuplic’s general election next month, when they will be contesting several key areas. Gerry Adams could hardly have avoided attending the commemoration meeting as Sinn Féin wants to present itself as being in the mainstream of Republican traditions and at the same time reaching out into democratic politics, leaving previous strategies to history.

Although a lot of progress has slowly been made since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement four years and six days ago and the 1916 Rebellion, 86 years ago on April 24th, there are many problems lying ahead to be faced and overcome, hopefully within the structures and framework of that accord on April 10th 1998.

The politics will not only be interesting and complex but testing to both communities in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic also. One or two scenarios might be envisaged in both jurisdictions.

The call by the Unionist Leader and First Minister as well as by Sinn Féin for a referendum on Partition (I discussed this in my previous article) may present problems for the Republic’s political parties in their May general election campaigns. And if Sinn Féin should increase their representation in the Dáil it could affect the composition of the government coalition after the poll.

Then linked to that, next year when the Northern Ireland Assembly election is held, and if further IRA decommissioning takes place, Sinn Féin might increase their Assembly numbers to equal or exceed that of the SDLP.

And what if the DUP should do similarly in respect of the Ulster Unionists? Problems might arise as to who might be successfully nominated and elected as First and Deputy First Minister, unless in the meantime the voting parameters are altered for these posts.

What arguments, horse trading arrangements and new alliances might need to be forged to keep the show on the road will make interesting news in the next twelve months.


©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 16 April, 2002.


Samuel H. Boyd


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