Henry McDonald: INLA show of strength is its biggest propaganda coup since Billy Wright murder
Republican terror group the Irish National Liberation Army has scored arguably its greatest propaganda coup last weekend since it assassinated Billy Wright inside the Maze almost a quarter of a century ago.
This time around though the losers were the Police Service of Northern Ireland rather than Wright and the Loyalist Volunteer Force he founded during the Drumcree crisis.
Last Friday the INLA’s show of strength in Londonderry was a brazen challenge to the PSNI’s authority on the streets of that city ... and it is clear that the onetime faction-riven paramilitary organisation came out on top.
The latter admission on Radio Foyle by PSNI Superintendent Catherine Magee that there were officers actually in the Galliagh area when masked men fired shots into the air only underlined the impotency of the police in that part of the city.
While denouncing the armed display in front of a mural dedicated to INLA hunger striker Mickey Devine as “unacceptable”, Supt Magee explained that the PSNI “weren’t on top of the commemoration” that was taking place “as it was happening.”
She pointed out that even though there were Tactical Support Units in the Galliagh area this incident took between 30 seconds to one minute making it hard for the PSNI to respond rapidly to the firing of shots.
For the INLA the spectacle of a senior PSNI commander in Northern Ireland’s second city squirming in front of the microphone undoubtedly has been a boon to its morale.
Back in 1997 the organisation was just emerging from yet another blood-soaked internal feud when it murdered Wright inside what was supposed to be the most secure prison in western Europe.
Twenty-four years later, this same now seemingly irrelevant terror faction accused by mainstream nationalist politicians of criminality and community intimidation has emerged from the shadows to challenge the authority of the PSNI on the streets and in doing so has scored a victory of sorts.
However, the INLA will not be the only one of the remnant alphabet soup factions of the Ulster paramilitarism death cult to feel emboldened this week.
The west bank of the Foyle and in particular the Galliagh area contains pockets of support for the anti-ceasefire republican groups, most notably the New IRA.
They will have watched and learned from the events at the Devine mural last Friday.
The New IRA and others like them understand that in the end much of terrorism is about the violent, cynical transmission of a message.
Wasn’t it Gerry Adams after all who once described the Provisional IRA’s violence as “armed propaganda”?
Expect then the New IRA to stage manage similar spectacles of ‘armed propaganda’ in areas under their influence, which will effectively put it up to the PSNI.
Conversely, those within Ulster loyalism arguing for a violent campaign against the Northern Ireland Protocol will take note too.
They will be wondering how far they can push the envelope in terms of disruption to the workings of the protocol at the ports, potential sabotage, intimidation and possibly even a strike across the border.
They will be pondering too over how far they can stretch a police force that appeared weak and indecisive in the face of the supposedly on cease-fire INLA.
A precedent has been set and it is likely to boost the arguments of those loyalists who are demanding a more dangerously radical strategy against the protocol over the next few months.
Regardless of the utter immorality and insanity of New IRA violence or the equally revolting prospect of a renewed loyalist violent campaign, the message has been sent, the signal has been transmitted, the lesson from Galliagh has already been absorbed: terror and the threat of terror works.
The irony of all is that the armed salute to a dead hunger strike has obscured an important controversy about that death fast in 1981.
Devine’s family along with a number of other families including those of fellow dead INLA hunger striker Patsy O’Hara are demanding answers from the Sinn Fein leadership.
They continue to raise questions over why the hunger strike was prolonged until 10 men died even though there was an offer from Margaret Thatcher’s government that could have ended the death fast in early July.
That important historical debate, which should cast a dark shadow over the cynicism and cold-hearted calculation of the mainstream republican leadership at the time and beyond, has been drowned out by this squalid sideshow.
• Henry McDonald is co-author of ‘INLA: Deadly Divisions’
• Henry McDonald last week: Irish nationalists can’t rely on Biden, as Kabul shows
• Owen Polley: Protocol is so serious unionists should rethink everything
• Ruth Dudley Edwards: Biden is arrogant, stubborn, and too damn old
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