In March 2017 the people of Northern Ireland returned to the polls for the second Assembly election in ten months. The 65% voter turnout, a rise of 10% on the previous year, was the largest in a referendum or election since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. And for the first time in their history, the Northern Irish electorate decided that Unionist parties would not hold an overall majority of seats in Stormont. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is once again the largest overall party. But they now only have one more seat than Sinn Féin.
Northern Ireland’s political history may be violent and bloody, but it was not the gun which determined this particular result. A political scandal relating to renewable energy brought down the last Assembly and the DUP was never able to escape its spectre during the campaign. The election was triggered by the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. His resignation was a protest at the handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive by the DUP and the failure of the first minister, Arlene Foster, to resign.
The former Provisional IRA leader’s resignation was presented for political reasons. Yet, because of ill health, it was his last act on the political stage. His departure, before his death at the age of 66, was the most recent step in Sinn Féin’s gradual move away from its violent past
His replacement, Michelle O’Neill, is the first Sinn Féin leader with no history of direct paramilitary involvement. Even though she has significant familial connections with the IRA, she is widely seen as an energetic and effective politician who has embraced the political chance provided by peace. In the weeks that have passed since the election, the significant challenges facing politicians in this devolved power-sharing assembly have become a stark reality. An agreement to form a government is yet to be reached.
But while Sinn Féin and the wider republican and nationalist electorate have taken a further step towards political “normality”, there are those still hanging onto the violence of the past. In the weeks leading up to the election there were near constant reminders of those who still wish for Northern Ireland’s return to the dark days of the Troubles.
On January 13, a husband and wife from west Belfast, both in their 50s, were each shot in the legs. They were believed to be protecting their teenage son from the clutches of the paramilitaries.
On January 22, a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer was shot twice in the arm at a petrol station in north Belfast. While he was only injured, it is believed that the intention was to kill.
On February 15 and 16 two teenagers were shot in the legs in separate punishment style attacks in west Belfast.
And on February 22 a pipe bomb, targeting a PSNI officer and his family was placed under their car in Derry. No one was killed or injured, but the bomb exploded once the army robot touched it.
Even after the election, on the day of Martin McGuinness’s death the New IRA attempted to kill a police officer in Strabane. Again, no one was killed. But the intent was clear.
Each of these attacks was believed to have been perpetrated by violent dissident republican (VDR) groups. In all probability, either the New IRA or another dissident group known as Oglaigh na hEireann was responsible. This list represents only a fraction of the violence they have been linked with.
These small groups, with little support, reject the hard-fought peace of the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements. They reject the legitimacy of Sinn Féin to represent the republican population of Northern Ireland. In their eyes, by taking their seats and ministerial positions in the Stormont Assembly, and showing their support for the PSNI, Sinn Féin members are now “servants” of the British crown.
Their violence is two-tiered. Localised violent vigilantism, exemplified by punishment beatings and shootings, is designed to win and maintain control and support within republican communities. They depict themselves as protecting the people from drug dealers and petty criminals. Through their actions and statements they say that they are doing the job that the PSNI cannot, will not and should not do. They say that they are protecting the very communities that they portray Sinn Féin as having abandoned.
In parallel, their nationalised terrorist violence targets the political and security auspices of the state. Through their attacks on the police, prison officers and security services, they aim to highlight the continued “occupation” of Northern Ireland by the British “oppressor” and disrupt the normalisation of Northern Irish political life. In their eyes the PSNI is a repressive and unrepresentative British police force operating in Ireland – the frontline forces of their “enemy”.
Persisting with peace
The PSNI, in collaboration with colleagues in An Garda Siochana (the police force of the Republic of Ireland), have been responsible for the deterrence and prevention of countless attacks. Yet the threat remains.
The campaign of violence is nowhere near the level witnessed during the Troubles. And there is no indication that they have either the capability or intent to match it. However, just because the violence will not reach the levels of the past does not mean that it should be accepted or ignored.
These paramilitaries claim to be the true representatives of the republican people of Ireland, both north and south of the border. But this claim of legitimacy is frequently and loudly rejected by the very people they claim to represent. On March 2 2017 this was rejected in the most powerful way of all, at the ballot box.