People in Northern Ireland woke up this morning to the news that dissident republicans had detonated a car bomb outside Palace Barracks in Holywood, the headquarters of MI5. The Real IRA claims responsibility for the bomb, designed as a protest against the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont.
An elderly man was injured in the explosion. Police said they received no prior warning about the bomb, although they had begun to evacuate residents before it exploded. The press-ganged taxi driver, whose family had been held hostage, exited his car shouting that there was a bomb.
It goes without saying that we are at a place now in Northern Ireland’s political story where all political parties, including Sinn Fein, have condemned the bomb and say that there is no place in Northern Ireland for such acts.
The BBC’s Mark Simpson summed it up this way,
On a day when a new political era is starting at Stormont, dissident republicans wanted to highlight one of the weaknesses the peace process – the threat of further violence.
The truth is the police suspected something might happen this week.
The reality is that they were not able to stop it.
That will be food for thought for Stormont’s new justice minister.
The Alliance Party’s David Ford is expected to be confirmed as the Justice Minister later today.
Dissident republican groups seem to have become more visible in the last few months. Living in West Belfast, I’m especially aware of this, as we’ve had ‘white line protests’ of late, as well as significant dissident presences at the recent Easter commemorations.
That’s not to mention more violent acts by the various groups, such as the maiming of PSNI officer Peadar Heffron, the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll, etc.
In an intriguing interview on the Steven Nolan show on April 2, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott, who has been a president of the Christian police association, said that he has prayed for dissident republicans, adding that he asked God to,
"take the scales from the eyes" of those who were engaged in a "cycle of violence and anger".
Baggot also spoke to a dissident supporter who phoned in, saying,
"You are obviously a very angry man and I’m sure there are things that have happened in the past that have made you angry and I respect that.
"But when I go to the graduation ceremonies of new recruits, many of whom are Catholic young people doing a fantastic job, they are not joining the PSNI to be part of a British war machine, they are joining to be the impartial guardians of your family and your young people’s future.
"The PSNI does not swear allegiance to the Queen, it swears allegiance to the people of Northern Ireland or the North of Ireland, however you want to call it.
But no matter Baggott’s personal faith, and as Baggott would certainly acknowledge, prayer isn’t going to be the preferred policy option when it comes to dealing with dissidents.
One again, this latest explosion forces us to ask questions about just how our justice system, our police, and we as a society should respond to the dissidents.
Round them up like criminals? Bring them into political dialogue? People in Northern Ireland have asked those questions before.
But there’s a difference now. Today, Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward said that the dissidents ‘have no support anywhere.’
And in condemning the attack, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said,
"It is a truly historic day – people out there who would like to destroy the peace process are not going to succeed because of the strength of the political process we have built up over recent years."
McGuinness’ comment points to the idea that political and justice processes must move together in tandem. That’s what the dissidents don’t want.
Are the rest of us committed enough to living together to make sure that the dissidents don’t derail our uneasy peace?