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Is it the Troubles again? Add to ...

Senior fellow at the Hudson Institute

'No murderer will be able to derail a peace process that has the support of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Sunday in response to the murder of two British soldiers in Northern Ireland by the Real IRA.

The words took me back almost 40 years. Throughout the 1970s, first as London correspondent for Dublin's state-owned RTE broadcaster, later as parliamentary sketch writer for The Daily Telegraph, I heard prime ministers and presidents utter the same condemnations of barbarism, the same appeals for peace, the same assurances that the terrorists would never win.

And that's the problem.

What was the end result? The peace process that ended the bombings and the shootings also put unrepentant terrorists into high government office. Terrorists found guilty of multiple murders - from both sides of the sectarian divide, Protestant loyalists no less than Catholic nationalists - were released onto the streets. Gangsterism now rules large areas of Ulster.

To be sure, the IRA failed in its objective of bombing a million Prods into a united Ireland. In fact, its campaign helped make Ian Paisley first minister of Northern Ireland - surely first prize in any list of dubious historical achievements. Still, the IRA's Martin McGuinness got his bottom into the ministerial limousine of a British government. Gerry Adams tours the world advising governments and their, ahem, armed critics on how to conduct a peace process.

Small wonder that "dissident republicans" calculate: If terrorism can achieve all that, maybe a little more of it will win a united Ireland. If it fails, well, in the fullness of time, they may be offered lesser rewards for not killing people.

Even before Saturday's murders by the Real IRA and Monday's murder of a policeman by the rival Continuity IRA, republican terrorism was starting to revive. Since early 2008, breakaway IRA groups have mounted 18 gun and bomb attacks, with three in 2009. A 300-pound car bomb was found near a school in County Down last month. Authorities believe there are five groups of "dissident" terrorists; Northern Ireland's respected police chief, Hugh Orde, recently brought in a small number of Special Reconnaissance Regiment soldiers to gather intelligence on them.

Does this mean a new round of Troubles? No. But a new round of Troubles wasn't likely to happen 40 years ago, either. Public opinion was firmly against IRA terrorism in the late 1960s; a mere 2 per cent of Northern Ireland Catholics then supported the Provos. Catholic women initially brought tea and biscuits to British soldiers on patrol; after all, they had arrived to protect Catholic areas from Protestant mobs in 1969.

So why did the Troubles happen? Well, the Brits made horrendous mistakes when the IRA began its terror campaign. Sometimes, they overreacted, as when British paratroopers fired on a crowd of demonstrators and killed 19 people. Sometimes, they underreacted, as when they let the IRA set up "no-go areas" where it brutally consolidated support.

But horrendous mistakes always occur, even in successful anti-terrorism campaigns. So what else kept the armed struggle going?

Deputy first minister Martin McGuinness inadvertently explained: "I was a member of the IRA, but that war is over now. The people responsible for [Saturday's]incident are clearly signalling that they want to resume or restart that war. Well, I deny their right to do that." But the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA claim the same "right" that Mr. McGuinness claimed 40 years ago when he joined. This right holds that, in 1916, the Irish "nation" - not Irish people now living or elected Irish governments but some mystical Irish nation standing outside history - gave the IRA the duty of driving the Brits out of Ireland. That duty binds Irishmen until Ireland is united.

Nonsense, of course, and fascist nonsense at that. Yet, as the late Conor Cruise O'Brien pointed out, respectable nationalists north and south paid lip service to this mythic ideology every Easter and in every election campaign. That, in turn, kept the republican loyalties of ordinary Catholics alive in the North. Although few Catholics supported the IRA, even fewer would betray it to the police or army. Many gave its "soldiers" sanctuary. As a result, the IRA could fight on for years and kill most of the Troubles' victims.

Defeating the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA depends on discrediting the sacred nationalist myth that violence on behalf of Irish unity is mandated by history. Irish republicans genuinely devoted to the peace process need to go one stage further. They need to renounce the myth and thus any ambiguity about the legitimacy of "the six counties."

In the past few days, though, Mr. Adams, Mr. McGuinness and other Sinn Fein politicians have hedged - condemning the murders, yet objecting to the "shadowy" troops brought in to solve them. Mr. McGuinness himself said: "People will view the activities of those groups with as much suspicion and disdain as they do that group which was responsible for the killing of two people in Antrim." Amoral equivalence could hardly go further.

Such hedging may intend to pacify restive republicans. But it reinforces the old omerta rule that Irishmen don't inform to the Brits. It strengthens sectarian divisions. And it flinches from confronting republican consciences with the moral truth that political murder is still murder and justifiable only in circumstances that long ago ceased to apply in Ireland, north or south. Only such a moral recognition can provide a sure basis for permanent peace. Without it, a revival of the Troubles remains unlikely but not impossible.

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