Old divisions being renewed: NI toxic stew simmering dangerously

This weekend marked a significant milestone: 25 years ago, the Ulster Democratic Party, the political front of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), announced a ceasefire.

Old divisions being renewed: NI toxic stew simmering dangerously

This weekend marked a significant milestone: 25 years ago, the Ulster Democratic Party, the political front of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), announced a ceasefire.

It was a moment of real hope, as the intractable had become, from a southern perspective, at least, almost malleable.

That optimism was, however, short-lived. Just 16 months later, it was terrorism as usual, when, in Feburary 1996, the IRA ceasefire ended with a bomb attack on London’s Canary Wharf.

Much as the vast majority of people on these islands hope that pointless cycle of violence has permanently ended, current and legacy issues suggest that toxic stew is, once again, simmering on a not-so-slow burner.

In recent days, John Downey, 67, was extradited to the North and, on Saturday, remanded in custody, charged with the murders of British soldiers Alfred Johnston and James Eames in Enniskillen, in 1972.

It may be coincidental, just maybe, that on the very day Downey was charged, it was reported that British prime minister Boris Johnson had been convinced to drop proposals on legislation to protect British veterans from prosecution over events, including Bloody Sunday murders, from today’s Queen’s Speech.

It is essential that the truth be established, but it is not possible to be as certain about the prospect of sending old men to jail for events half a century ago. After all, the early release of convicted men was one of the bitter pills swallowed to finalise the Good Friday Agreement.

Neither is it necessary to embrace Nixon-grade paranoia to see the oldest and most effective tactic used in the long, bloody history of these islands in play — divide and conquer. The recent spate of excellent television programmes on murderous collusion between terrorists and the British establishment underlines how effective this policy was, or, is.

Our report this weekend that garda security chiefs have expressed concern at a spike in dissident republican activity adds to the impression of a growing threat. Assistant Commissioner Michael O’Sullivan also expressed Brexit concern on ongoing exchange of information between gardaí and the PSNI, a vital foil to any resurgent terrorism.

That Saturday warning was followed, almost inevitably, by a tit-for-tat assertion by loyalist paramilitaries. Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) sources have warned that they are preparing protests and a campaign of civil disobedience, should Boris Johnson’s government propose to align the North and the Republic in a customs arrangement to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

The UVF has warned that it will respond if anything that diminishes the North’s position in the UK is imposed. That approach may have been, at least tacitly, encouraged by DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds when he warned that a proposed solution to the backstop reportedly being discussed by UK and EU officials “cannot work”.

No matter how tempting it is to look away and hope that today’s peace will endure, that is not possible. Brexiteers’ ignorance of, and deep indifference to, Irish affairs and what seems re-energised terrorist groups — of all hues — cannot be allowed to jeopardise our hard-won peace.

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