While travelling home from Belfast last night along with my eight year old daughter news started to filter through of an armed attack on British soldiers in Antrim. Before we reached our destination confirmation of two British military fatalities came through from a journalist friend who had been monitoring information as it came to light. My first thought was personal and laden with no political overtones. I looked at my daughter and felt a weary sense of relief that she did not have to grow up in the North where political violence seems to sleep with one eye open waiting on any opportunity or circumstance that may come along. Years ago this type of news would rally the spirit. Now it just dampens the mood and feeds into despair, the strategic futility of it all every bit as debilitating as the political failure it constitutes.
Last night’s operation looked efficient from a strictly military point of view. Claimed today by the South Antrim brigade of the Real IRA that efficiency was probably its most salient feature. Like most others familiar to some degree with republican developments in the North I had felt that if wiser heads failed to make their influence felt within the decision making centres that shape the republican physical force tradition then it was only a matter of time before republicans killed a member of the British security apparatuses in the North in a futile act of militarism. As the Provisional IRA statement released immediately after the Brighton bomb in 1984 made clear the British have to be lucky all the time, republicans need only be lucky once. However, there seemed a greater probability that the easier option would have found its way to the top of the target selection list. An off duty, guard-dropped member of the PSNI always seemed the likely candidate for armed republican interest.
All of that has to be revised now. To hit the British military at one of its own installations puts more meaning into the terms ‘courageous and imaginative’ than we are familiar with from years of listening to other pronouncements containing that brace of words. This suggests a definite efficiency and a steely determination on the part of the attackers that most people thought they were incapable of. It is the type of activity that increases the power of what the Soviet Marxist Lenin once termed ‘excitative terror.’ There are young people with republican sentiment who are likely to feel such actions should be emulated rather than rejected. It is the type of activity the 1981 IRA hunger striker Frank Hughes was renowned for and for which the British secretary of state at the time labelled him a criminal.
This focuses attention on virtually every aspect of the assault on Massereene being indistinguishable from many similar attacks carried out by the Provisional IRA during its own armed struggle. Ruthless and clinical as it was, in human terms it was hardly as horrendous as the operation by the Derry City IRA on a British Army checkpoint at Coshquin in October 1990 in which it forced the civilian Patsy Gillespie to become a human bomb. In military terms it was more successful than the October 1996 IRA bomb attack on Thiepval Barracks which claimed the life of one British soldier. Those civilians who, like the pizza delivery men at Massereene, contracted their services out to British security personnel were frequently targeted; on one occasion at Teebane in 1992 eight of them were blown apart as they drove home in their work van. There is a thread of continuity weaving its way through attacks of this type. Those who shout ‘our killing of British soldiers is more legitimate than yours’ merely confirm that legitimacy, like Talleyrand’s treason, is a matter of dates.
Be that as it may, the attack will produce no more than the loss of two lives if last night’s injured parties do not lose their fight for life. It will not kick start any campaign on the scale of the failed Provisional IRA armed venture. And if that failed in circumstances that were arguably more propitious for success than those of today, then there is no chance of current armed republican actions succeeding. If those driving this type of activity are so politically short sighted that they fail to see the outcome then they will most assuredly prove susceptible to the type of overtures that have so compromised Sinn Fein. The Catholic party now stands despised in their eyes for having being lured into Britain’s administration in Ireland from where they stand shoulder to shoulder with the current British secretary of state, screaming ‘criminal’ at all who follow Sinn Fein’s now abandoned position of giving unambiguous support to armed struggle.
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.