Northern Ireland – Where Conflict Remains
On Friday night (15th April) in Belfast, Michael McGibbon, a 33 year old father of four was violently murdered by two youths who fatally shot him four times. Late night murders in large cities, sadly, aren’t unusual, and Belfast is no exception. However, on Saturday (16th April); Chief Superintendant John McVea of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) announced that their investigation had found that the murderers were suspected of being dissident republicans.
Condemnation of the crime came swiftly from all major political parties in Northern Ireland including the nationalist/republican parties, SDLP and Sinn Féin.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) enacted seventeen years ago is widely regarded as ending the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The period from 1968 to 1998 had seen around 3,600 people killed in the name of ethnicity, nationality, religion, culture, or ideology (depending on your view).
Although not addressing the existential questions that led to the divide between the region’s communities, the Agreement created a social and political framework in which power-sharing and peaceful co-existence could flourish.
Most of the major militant groups in Northern Ireland, on both sides, decommissioned and called an end to their war. However, a fringe number of dissidents who are operating to this day, rejected the Agreement.
Today Northern Ireland’s murder rate is relatively low. It is lower than the United Kingdom average and considerably lower than in the Republic of Ireland. The problem is that a high number of murders in Northern Ireland are still politically motivated. They are not all random acts of violence or domestic disputes; but rather pre-meditated killings committed by those very dissidents mentioned above.
In 2009 two British soldiers were murdered by the Real IRA. Shortly after, the Continuity IRA shot a police officer dead. Another officer, Ronan Kerr, a Catholic, was murdered in 2011 by ex-members of the defunct Provisional IRA. There was also the Omagh Bombing that killed 29 people in Tyrone. The bombing, committed by the Real IRA, took place after the agreement was signed, but before it was enacted. If all these ‘IRAs’ are confusing, they should be. They seem to confuse themselves too, turning on each other and fighting among themselves.
Recent sanguinary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising in the Republic and among Northern Ireland’s nationalist/republican community haven’t helped ease tensions. The PSNI have been on high alert all spring, anticipating an upshot in dissident republican attacks. Last month, a 52 year old prison officer was killed in a bomb attack by the New IRA and in February the Continuity IRA killed a man in Dublin.
Between 1999 and 2010 roughly 85 people were killed as a result of post-GFA dissident activity, most of them civilians. At least 13 people have been killed in dissident-related activity since then. In total, perhaps over 100 people have died in political killings at the hands of dissident republicans and unionists since the Good Friday Agreement. Add to this the countless beatings, threats, non-fatal attacks, shooting at police vehicles, orchestrated riots, and unexploded bombs and a grim picture begins to emerge. It’s a lot of violence for a small country of roughly 1.8 million.
Admittedly, some of this violence has more to do with drugs and cigarettes than politics. The lines between dissident militants, petty gangs, and community vigilantes have been blurred by the relative peace. Still, this is concerning, and shouldn’t detract from the aim of eradicating political militancy at its core. First because the Real IRA (a traditional republican group) and RADA (a violent, anti-drugs, vigilante group) merged forces into a New IRA in 2012, for the greater glory of the Irish republic. Not only are these groups pooling resources, but they cut across the gang/militant divide. Second, most armed groups throughout modern history have meddled in contraband to fund their violence. The Taliban have their opium, FARC their cocaine, and Hezbollah their blood diamonds. It doesn’t make them any less politically dangerous. The IRA has its drug and cigarette smuggling. Profits from this trade line pockets of dissidents with money and guns.
While great strides have and are still being made in Northern Ireland politically and socially, it’s clear that dissident militancy still exists and is extremely dangerous. Many of the groups, particularly the Continuity IRA, are disregarded for being small and inept. We must remember that these people are still a serious threat to peace, and have some support in the community, as do all the dissidents. This latest killing of Michael McGibbon is a reminder of this, regardless of the as-yet-unknown motive for his murder.
The British and Irish governments and the Independent Monitoring Commission need to significantly harden their approach to these groups, as they did before 1999. Treating dissidents as oddities will not help defeat them as armed groups, regardless of their size, they need to be reckoned with. Only then, when the threat is again realized and adequate resources are provided for their destruction, will dissidents be defeated. Until that happens, prepare for more deaths.