A few years ago I called into a public meeting in Dublin on the future of Republicanism. It seemed to me, listening to the proceedings, that the prospects weren’t good. The world’s oldest anti-colonial tradition wasn’t showing much fresh thinking. Des Dalton, the vice president of Republican Sinn Féin, spent most of his time on the platform reading passages from Eire Nua, a programme drafted by the Provos in the early 1970s. There was no attempt to explain how that document (a rather charming vision of an all-Ireland state divided into four provinces, each with its own parliament) might be translated into reality. When the question of armed struggle came up – as it always does on these occasions – Dalton had his answer ready: he wouldn’t recommend that approach himself, but if the next generation of Irish patriots chose to take up arms against the British occupation, he wouldn’t be the man to stand in their way.

Republican Sinn Féin is the political wing of the Continuity IRA, a splinter group formed in the 1980s by those who worried that Gerry Adams was about to betray the movement. People who get their disillusionment in early can often reap the benefits later, but the CIRA has never managed to capitalise on whatever disillusionment there was at the path taken by Adams. This probably owes a good deal to its embarrassing military record: the Provos have never missed an opportunity to taunt their rivals for their inability to kill a single member of the British army or the police in two decades of ‘war’. That omission was finally corrected on 9 March, when a member of the next generation of Irish patriots shot a police officer in Craigavon. But the CIRA still found itself upstaged by another group, the Real IRA, which had killed two British soldiers in Antrim a couple of days earlier.

It’s difficult to fathom the enthusiasm for armed struggle among hardline Republicans. During the Dublin debate, the historian Brian Hanley made a point that seems unanswerable to me, as it must to the majority of those whose backing the ‘dissidents’ (a label they have always rejected) seek: if the British establishment wasn’t prepared to withdraw in 1972, when the Provos killed a hundred soldiers and wounded more than five hundred, why would they capitulate now to groups incapable of fighting a war at that pitch?

Also on the platform that night was Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member and Long Kesh prisoner, and a very articulate and often funny critic of Gerry Adams. McIntyre’s cynicism about the peace process has not gone down well with the Provo leadership: Sinn Féin organised a ‘picket’ outside his home in Belfast, which eventually forced him to move. But whatever shortcomings McIntyre finds in the current strategy, he still thinks it ‘infinitely better than continuing to fight a futile war for the sake of honouring Ireland’s dead yet producing only more of them’. Referring to the RIRA attacks, he said:

It has sometimes been stated that ‘if you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.’ Dead on all sides, graves, funeral processions, widows, children growing up a parent short, jails, human rights abuses and no united Ireland at the end of it all. Why this addiction to failure? Surely Republicanism has to be more imaginative than that.

So what lies behind the recent violence, which appears so futile? The predictable answer from Ireland’s ‘security’ correspondents, most of whom share a hatred of Republicanism and a heavy reliance on anonymous police and intelligence sources, is that there is no genuine political motivation behind the attacks. Militant Republicanism is just a front for criminality: the ‘dissidents’ don’t want regular policing in the border counties in case it disrupts their rackets. This argument is deeply unconvincing: the British government spent 25 years trying to persuade people that one of the longest-running and (proportionally) bloodiest conflicts in modern history was no more than a crime wave. London tacitly abandoned this pretence when it included the ‘criminals’ in peace talks.

The attacks certainly weren’t very sophisticated. The RIRA ambushed the two soldiers when they were taking delivery of a pizza, and managed to shoot the delivery men in the process (they survived). A shrewder group might have expressed regret at having shot civilians. Instead, the organisation rushed to issue a statement describing pizza workers as ‘collaborators with British rule in Ireland’.

One of the wounded delivery men was Polish. His involvement in the latest violence may be a hint of things to come, as large-scale immigration into Northern Ireland disturbs the integrity of an ancient quarrel – or at least varies the usual pattern of confrontation. The Orange Order has been intimidating Catholics for two hundred years, but has only recently begun to target other groups, like the growing Chinese community. Anna Lo of the impeccably middle-of-the-road Alliance Party won a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly at the last elections, becoming the first Chinese-born member of a parliament anywhere in Europe. She incurred the wrath of the ‘Pride of the Raven’ marching band towards the end of 2007 after sending a polite letter to its leader, suggesting that it consider rerouting a parade that had trapped people in their homes for hours.

The Orangemen duly scheduled another march to make it clear that they would not allow their culture to be repressed by polite letters, especially not from a blow-in like Anna Lo. The march was designed to pass through the area of Belfast with the highest concentration of Chinese-owned businesses. ‘This parade is having to make a major detour just to go through Donegall Pass,’ Lo said, while making it clear she thought the rerouting had ‘racist overtones’. Aghast at these charges, an Orange spokesman retorted that his members were so broad-minded that they would most probably stop to order a Chinese takeaway on their way home. (The Parades Commission told the lodge to change its route.)

The political logic behind the RIRA/ CIRA attacks is clear enough: killing British soldiers and members of the police force won’t transform the balance of power, but it might accelerate disillusionment with the Sinn Féin leadership by forcing Adams and Martin McGuinness to align themselves closely with the forces they once considered legitimate military targets. They must have been delighted to hear McGuinness denouncing the gunmen as traitors and urging people to pass information to the police. The ‘dissidents’ are pushing their one-time comrades into a closer embrace with the establishment, and positioning themselves to take advantage of the perceived failures of the power-sharing administration.

It isn’t surprising that some people feel disillusioned. There is a constant pressure to express ‘unity’ in support of the Sinn Féin-DUP coalition, yet in British political terms, the DUP slots in between the right of the Tory Party and the BNP, with a generous side-helping of fundamentalist Christianity. The party’s environment minister, Sammy Wilson, recently vetoed a government global warming campaign on the grounds that global warming isn’t caused by human activity, while another DUP stalwart, Mervyn Storey, who chairs the Stormont education committee, is trying to have intelligent design included in the school biology curriculum. The DUP is also doing its best to resist Sinn Féin proposals for the abolition of the 11-plus, which still holds on in Northern Ireland though it has disappeared from the rest of the UK (except in plucky little Kent). The party sticks to an unflinching neoliberal line in economic policy. Its leader and first minister, Peter Robinson, has attributed the global recession to excessive government regulation, which is at least original. Statistics released just before Christmas showed that 40 per cent of the workforce in West Belfast was unemployed, while a more recent government report predicted that Belfast, along with Liverpool and Hull, will be among the UK cities worst affected by the crisis. The demise of traditional industries like shipbuilding has left the local economy dependent on public-sector employment, which is now responsible for a third of all jobs.

It isn’t an encouraging picture, and the boorish tribalism of the DUP only makes it worse. It never loses an opportunity to humiliate Sinn Féin by frustrating the most innocuous proposals for reform. (The Unionists, unfortunately, pride themselves on their sense of humour: the DUP sports minister, Gregory Campbell, must have tittered to himself as he wrote a message of congratulations to the Tyrone GAA team which won last year’s All-Ireland Gaelic football championship, praising their success in ‘an international sporting event’.)

With the sensitivity we’ve come to expect, the British army added its own drop of petrol to the fire last November by scheduling a ‘homecoming parade’ through the streets of Belfast for troops of the Royal Irish Regiment returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The original plan was to have five thousand armed soldiers pass through Nationalist areas, while the RAF staged a flypast over West Belfast. The guns and planes were dropped in the end, but the march went ahead, prompting the city’s largest display of sectarian triumphalism in years. Army spokesmen expressed their satisfaction with the event, noting that it would have been unthinkable not too long ago. Quite so: although it is rarely mentioned, one side-effect of the peace process has been a decade of British military adventurism. The army would never have been able to undertake such ambitious operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan had it still been preoccupied with containing the IRA (the moderator of the Presbyterian Church has urged us to take comfort in the fact that Protestant and Catholic soldiers had been deployed together in Iraq: ‘Such an example of co-operation is to be welcomed in this divided land of ours’).

The week before the RIRA/CIRA attacks, it emerged that the Northern Irish chief constable had invited British Special Forces to operate in Northern Ireland without informing the civilian Policing Board – the notorious Force Research Unit effectively ran the UDA’s intelligence unit in the late 1980s and helped organise the murder of Pat Finucane among others. After the killings, Sinn Féin and the SDLP put aside their objections to this in the face of pressure to line up behind the forces of law and order. The Northern Irish police force also seized the chance to make use of the extended detention period for terrorist suspects that was passed by the House of Commons only with the support of the DUP. Does that mean that intelligent criticism of the postwar settlement by those who reject militarism will now be silenced, just as it was after the Omagh bombing of 1998? It seems likely.

Meanwhile the indifference of people in the South to what happens across the border is probably greater than at any time since the War of Independence. I travel to Belfast every couple of months, which is hardly adventurous, but almost freakishly abnormal among the people I know. The pattern has changed a little since the pound began plummeting against the euro last year, with hordes of shoppers moving north to find bargains (there’s a banner round the corner from my flat advertising ‘Recession Bus Tours’). But the mental gap is as wide as ever.

The partitionist mentality of many Southerners was clear at the last general election. When Adams appeared in a televised debate between party leaders, he didn’t, it’s true, cut a very impressive figure. But much of the negative reaction focused on the alleged impertinence of a ‘foreigner’ telling us how we should run ‘our’ country. I have no great fondness for Sinn Féin but I found the undisguised glee at the party’s poor performance hard to take. Unionists have a point when they note the aversion of Southern politicians to any form of power-sharing with Republicans on their own patch. This attitude isn’t sustainable. Assurances that we have reached ‘the end of Irish history’ have little to commend them.

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