OMICIDIO DAVID BLACK. L’INIZIO DI UNA GUERRA SETTARIA?
Dissident republicans may have opened a new front in their armed campaign – if so there will be frantic efforts to persuade loyalists not to retaliate.
Since a booby-trap bomb exploded underneath the car belonging to the Catholic police recruit Ronan Kerr in April 2011 most of the violence from republican terror groups has been directed at their own communities.
Since Kerr’s death there has been one murder over the border in County Donegal and more than a dozen shootings, with all of the victims young Catholic males who were the targets of republican anti-drug vigilante attacks.
Republican Action Against Drugs, alongside its new allies in what was the Real IRA, for a time seemed more preoccupied with portraying itself as an armed bulwark against alleged drug dealers than a threat to the state.
The ambush-style murder, however, on the M1 motorway between Lurgan and Portadown early on Thursday morning underlines the deadly intent of its main reason for existing: to destabilise the power-sharing settlement in Northern Ireland.
By killing a member of the Northern Ireland prison service, the dissident republicans have also opened up a dangerous new front in their armed campaigns. If their victim turns out to have come from the unionist community (where the prison service has traditionally drawn most of its staff) then this will be the first Protestant civilian to die at the hands of anti-ceasefire republicans in this current phase of violence.
Until now, the Continuity IRA, Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann have attacked and sometimes killed British soldiers and Catholic police recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the latter regarded by the hardliners as traitors for joining what they regard as a British police force.
Targeting someone that most unionists would regard as having civilian status creates the potential for a loyalist paramilitary counter-strike, as has been the case in the past.
Ever since the Real IRA Omagh bomb atrocity of 1998, the two main loyalist paramilitary terror groups – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association – have refrained from retaliatory attacks either against republicans or the wider nationalist community. There will be frantic efforts now by the politicians at Stormont and mediators from the churches and the trade unions to persuade the loyalists to maintain that policy rather than be sucked into a new sectarian shooting war.
During the Troubles, paramilitaries, mainly republicans, often targeted and killed prison officers as part of their campaigns inside the jails for political status, culminating in the 1981 hunger strikes inside the Maze. Up to 30 prison officers were murdered over the past 40 years, the final victim being killed by the UVF after a prison dispute between loyalist inmates and the authorities moved outside the jail and into the wider community.
At present there is an ongoing dispute between republican prisoners belonging to the Continuity IRA and the new republican alliance styling itself as the new IRA, and the authorities inside Maghaberry top-security prison where the murder victim worked. These protests have also now spilled out of the jail and into Northern Ireland society, with lethal results.
On a wider front this murder is a disturbing reminder that a small but active section of Irish republicanism remains committed to the use of arms in pursuing its goal of destroying the Northern Ireland state. With only a couple of hundred activists stretched in an arc ranging from Derry city to east Tyrone, north Armagh to north Belfast, the two main factions of recalcitrant republicanism are unlikely to wreck the power-sharing settlement or decouple the critical partnership between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists at Stormont.
But as the Home Office warned just last week, while the new IRA and CIRA bombing threats to England have receded, the danger they pose within Northern Ireland itself remains, in the government’s own words, “severe”.