The week the funerals returned
After the Real IRA told Suzanne Breen that the organisation had carried out the Massereene shootings, the Sunday Tribune's Northern Editor canvassed the republican community, finding more support than many would like to believe for the three killings in three days that stirred echoes of the Troubles
Kate Carroll at the funeral of her husband PSNI?officer Stephen Carroll, who was murdered by the Continuity IRA on Monday night
I was in a Belfast shopping centre about to go into Sainsburys to buy the evening's groceries when the call came through to my mobile phone.
"Is that Suzanne Breen?"
"Are you recording this conversation?"
I told the male caller I
"This is the Real IRA's South Antrim brigade. We're claiming responsibility for the gun attack on Massereene British army base," he said.
"We make no apology for killing British soldiers while they continue to occupy Ireland. Nor do we apologise for shooting the pizza delivery men who were collaborating with the British military personnel by servicing them. A further statement from the Real IRA will follow."
The caller was calm and relaxed, while I panicked that I'd neither pen nor paper with me. I asked him for a codeword. "Blackwater. Fragile," he said. I ran home trying to keep his exact statement in my head.
That was last Sunday evening. The attack deeply worried the security services because Antrim isn't a nationalist, let alone republican, area.
Three men were arrested yesterday of part of the investigation into the attack.
On Monday night, a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer was shot dead in Craigavon by the Continuity IRA. Three people killed by republicans within 48 hours. This wasn't meant to happen in the new Northern Ireland.
At first, Sinn FÃ©in's response on Massereene was watery. Such "actions" were "wrong and counterproductive", Gerry Adams said. Hardly stern stuff. It wasn't that the party harbours a sneaking regard for the dissidents, as some unionists suspect. Just that it was walking a tightrope â trying to appease unionists and new Sinn FÃ©in voters, while not alienating its traditional base.
But then Martin McGuinness got tough. After Craigavon, he called the killers traitors to Ireland. His words put clear green water between the Provisionals and the organisations which have now assumed the mantle of physical-force republicanism. Those he denounced were equally scathing. One dissident said: "We're going to print T-shirts with the slogan, 'If Martin McGuinness is a republican, I'm proud to be a traitor'."
The body count in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the Northern killings' seem small fry. So why the huge international coverage? It's because Northern Ireland was meant to be a normal western democracy with shiny new shopping centres and luxury hotels. Physical-force republicans were yesterday's men.
The vast majority of Northerners â unionist and nationalist â are appalled by these attacks. But that sentiment isn't unanimously shared in traditional republican areas â there's no point pretending otherwise. Within hours of Massereene a text joke was circulating: "They ordered Dominos pizzas and got the Goodfellas as well."
The peace process certainly isn't on the verge of collapse and Sinn FÃ©in will remain electorally strong. But the party will have problems stemming some flow to dissidents in republican heartlands. Sinn FÃ©in is seen by some previously diehard supporters as having no strategy for Irish unity. Those who proclaimed a united Ireland by 2016 can't even secure an Irish-language act or stadium at the Maze.
And suited Sinn FÃ©in leaders at Stormont will struggle to look sexy to nationalist youth in coming years if dissidents are on the streets with guns. The massacre of 29 civilians in Omagh has hung over dissidents. However, the more security-force casualties they inflict, the more the image of Omagh will recede among the republican base. The same was unfortunately true for the Provisionals over Bloody Friday, La Mon and Enniskillen.
Richard O'Rawe, former IRA PRO in the H-Blocks during the 1981 hunger strike, is no apologist for dissident attacks, but he sees increasing disillusionment with Sinn FÃ©in: "Many guys who did time, who did the killings, who were at the coal face, are now unemployed or unemployable because of their republican past, while the impression is of some Sinn FÃ©in figures lining their pockets at Stormont and buying second homes in Portugal and Donegal."
O'Rawe distinguishes between the two attacks: "Massereene had an aura of professionalism. Those guys weren't kids. They knew what they were doing. Craigavon seemed less planned and more opportunistic. Perhaps once the Real IRA had inflicted fatalities, Continuity upped their game to get a kill."
But O'Rawe makes no moral distinction: "Neither attack is justified. It's immoral to fight a campaign you can't win. Their armed struggle won't drive the British into the sea. We in the Provisional IRA couldn't do it after 35 years and we'd an organisation the likes of which Michael Collins would have envied. People don't want to return to those dark days of shootings and funerals. They want to live their lives in peace."
So should nationalists inform on dissidents? "That's a matter for individual consciences," O'Rawe says. "But it shouldn't be done lightly. These people have already killed. Sinn FÃ©in leaders say 'inform' but if somebody stands up in a witness box during a trial and says 'Johnny Bloggs down the street fired the shot', that person will be shot dead."
Unlike O'Rawe, former hunger striker and IRA bomber Marian Price isn't opposed to the attacks: "The British soldiers shot were in Ireland and were going to occupy Afghanistan. Had they stayed in their own country, they'd be alive today." Price, a 32-County Sovereignty Movement member, is speaking personally and not for the group.
She accuses her former comrades of hypocrisy: "It's ridiculous for Sinn FÃ©in to argue that those responsible have no mandate. Gerry Kelly and I were part of the same unit that bombed the Old Bailey. The SDLP, not Sinn FÃ©in, had a huge electoral mandate from nationalists then. Gerry, myself, and others on the operation viewed the SDLP and their mandate with absolute contempt. Martin McGuinness goes to a dead policeman's home to pay his respects. Did he visit the home of Paul Quinn who was beaten to death by south Armagh Provisionals?"
Willie Gallagher from Strabane, who spent 18 years in jail as an INLA prisoner, says: "I don't see the point in fighting a war you've no chance of winning. That's why I took no satisfaction in the death of the police officer even though I've been harassed throughout my life.
"I've been beaten up and down the street by the RUC. Once, during interrogation, they broke my hand. The PSNI hasn't physically harmed me but, if I walked through Strabane town centre now, I'd be stopped and searched. What's your name, date of birth and all that jazz, even though they know well who I am.
"Just before Christmas, the PSNI threatened to arrest my two wee lads, who are eight and five, because they couldn't find my mobile phone and they suspected the children had taken it to school."
While Gallagher doesn't endorse the dissident attacks, he won't condemn them. "And I certainly wouldn't inform. The police could beat me black and blue again and I'd tell them nothing. Indeed, if I saw a British or police undercover operation which might result in the death, injury or capture of fellow republicans, I'd pass the information onto the relevant people to warn them."
The INLA is on ceasefire but if there was a sustained loyalist response to dissident attacks, Gallagher reckons this could change: "I don't believe the INLA would respond to a one-off sectarian attack but if there was a concerted campaign, the INLA would have to rethink its ceasefire to defend the nationalist community."
Mickey Donnelly from Derry was one of 14 internees whom the British used as human guinea pigs in 1971. "I thought these [dissident] attacks were a long time coming," he says. "Catholics leaving chapel have condemned them but that's not the full story. There's graffiti beside Craigavon Bridge in Derry saying, 'Your pizzas are getting cold' and in the Bogside saying, 'God bless the gunmen'."
Republican Sinn FÃ©in member Geraldine Taylor, from west Belfast, was one of a dozen women interned in 1971: "My politics haven't changed. The only difference in the North is the Brits are in their barracks now, not on the streets. There are still 5,000 of them here and
thousands more can be flown back at a moment's notice so it's a lie to suggest they've left. When Martin McGuinness was a senior IRA member, how many bullets did the IRA put in people's heads? Would he call himself a traitor to Ireland for that?"
Taylor refuses to condemn Massereene or Craigavon: "Three families are suffering terribly. It's regrettable people have to lose their lives. But those responsible are the British government. They didn't fire the bullets but they're the reason they were fired."
Despite the strong opinion of republicans such as Taylor, the condemnation of dissidents across the North is extensive. But no amount of peace rallies or clerical denunciation will have the slightest impact on the Real or Continuity IRA.
Many unionists once hostile to Sinn FÃ©in were impressed by Martin McGuinness's words and hope the nationalist community pays heed. The recession certainly won't hurt the dissidents. Young people with poor economic prospects often feel they've little to lose.
Francie Molloy, now a Sinn FÃ©in Assembly member, made a forceful speech on the 24th anniversary of South Armagh IRA leader Michael McVerry, who was shot dead by British soldiers after placing a bomb at a barracks.
"Michael McVerry brought the struggle to the British. He didn't sit back and wait for the Brits coming but led from the front... brought it out of this area and took on the Brits," Molloy said. When he died, McVerry was wanted for at least 10 killings.
The South Armagh brigade didn't just target police and soldiers. It ambushed an Indian immigrant worker delivering meals to Crossmaglen barracks. He died in a hail of bullets, returning from the base. Last week, two pizza men lay injured in hospital as three security-force members went to early graves.
Things have changed so much in the North; yet they haven't changed at all.
March 15, 2009