Northern Ireland Return of the Gun: The Hounding of an Irish Journalist for Her IRA Contacts Signals the Security Services' Panic at the Threat of Re-Emerging Violence. Their Worries Are Well Founded: The Terrorist Ideology Runs Deep

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The murder of two British army soldiers and the killing of a policeman, and now the ominous threats from the British state to imprison the Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen unless she "gives up" her dissident republican sources, are grim reminders of the unfinished violent business of a united Ireland.

The shooting of two British army soldiers at Massereene Barracks and the murder of a policeman in Craigavon were carried out by two separate dissident republican factions. However, both served the same purpose: they were acts of bloody annunciation and potent demonstrations of the republican will to strike out at the ancient enemy, perfidious Albion. A number of individuals have since been arrested and charged but the threat of renewed bloodshed in Northern Ireland is palpable.

In the latest twist, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has turned on the respected Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen, who took the call from the Real IRA press spokesman announcing their bloody handiwork. Breen has been threatened with arrest and imprisonment unless she delivers up her notes of all her contacts with Real IRA dissidents.

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The hounding of Suzanne Breen, when her phone was almost certainly being tapped by the security services anyway, is both mendacious and stupid, and a sign of panic by the authorities. Common sense tells us that you will not defeat terrorist organisations by imprisoning journalists who write about them.

But the Massereene Barracks attack is important because it marks a new beginning, a new threshold in escalation. The British state in Ireland is armouring up to counter even the possibility of a new generation of IRA gunmen.

Political warfare is never a simple act. Even a basic shooting requires three layers of organisation. There must be a leader to endorse the actions, command the gunmen and claim responsibility. Beneath the leader is the executive arm that organises the stolen car, the untraceable pay-as-you-go mobile phone chip, the scout car (also stolen), the money, the recruitment and the guns. And, in our media age, someone has to be press officer--hence the call of responsibility to Suzanne Breen. There is one other vital department: the counter-intelligence arm, to identify would-be British security-force informers. And, supporting all of this, killer foot soldiers who believe that they will be protected from the wrath of the most powerful military state in Europe.

The retiring chief constable of the PSNI, Hugh Orde, has put the numbers of the dissidents at 300, branding them a tiny, isolated minority. His logic is misleading. Even 30 would be a significant challenge. The most important thing is not the numbers, but that they are back.

Even if these particular gunmen are caught and imprisoned, more will come in the future. Car bombs will go off. The Troubles will blink in and out of existence. If things get worse, Gerry Adams will be overthrown as the sole leader of Irish republicanism and in the chaos new, violent factions of the IRA will again emerge.

The real calculus of the Troubles was always the political impact each act of violence had on the rest of society. Just one lorry bomb--for instance, the 1993 Bishopsgate attack that took out a quarter of a mile of the City of London and caused [pounds sterling] ibn worth of damage--can change the course of Irish history.

"The Troubles" was always a euphemism. It was the only phrase vague enough for every combatant to agree on. In practical terms it meant an episodic affliction: sporadic riots, targeted assassinations, contained mayhem and limited destruction. It was rebellion, not revolution. Most of the time the electricity worked, as did the phones. Murdering someone--a soldier, a paramilitary or some poor shopper--was just another way of getting a political message across. The threat, the possibility of ambush, was almost as potent as killing itself. …