We all despised Paris, but need to combine against terror here in NI

Alex Attwood and Dolores Kelly in 2007 outside the site of the then new MI5 headquarters for Northern Ireland at Palace Barracks. Picture: Bill Smyth
Alex Attwood and Dolores Kelly in 2007 outside the site of the then new MI5 headquarters for Northern Ireland at Palace Barracks. Picture: Bill Smyth

The picture above tells you a couple of things about the SDLP.

It shows how the party has often tried to out green Sinn Fein.

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor

And it illustrates how hard it is to get full cross-community support for a proper fight against republican terror.

The image shows Alex Attwood and Dolores Kelly in 2007, protesting at the then new MI5 headquarters in Holywood.

It was not an isolated moment. Eight years after that photograph the SDLP was still opposing the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland.

It was no surprise that Sinn Fein would resist a body that would get tough with border criminals, but it was depressing to see the SDLP give them political cover.

The SDLP of the 1980s was unequivocally anti Provisional. Its activists were harangued when they bravely canvassed republican areas.

The party is of course unequivocally opposed to the dissidents. But it seems lukewarm about security measures to defeat murderous fanatics, the most important of which is intelligence work.

In July John O’Dowd blamed MI5 and dissident “conflict junkies” for a republican murder bid on PSNI in Lurgan. In a sane world, the SDLP would jump in and dismiss such nonsense.

When dissidents carry out an atrocity there is always cross-community condemnation. Even Mr O’Dowd was condemning the Lurgan attack. But it is what follows the denunciation that is troubling.

After the Omagh bomb in 1998 nationalist Ireland united in genuine horror at it. But in an alarming sequence over the following years, blame for that massacre subtly shifted to the RUC.

There were widely supported efforts to get justice against the bombers but the subtext was that dissidents and the RUC were both to blame. This was all the more galling given that some hardline nationalists who seized on the Omagh findings had undermined the RUC at every juncture, and were ambivalent about the IRA culture that laid the template for Omagh (Bloody Friday, Enniskillen, etc).

This is happening in many Troubles killings. Outrages that were pure IRA badness are ostensibly being investigated but are in fact being examined for failures in the then police probe or the use of agents.

Then the O’Dowd logic kicks in: that running agents was not a frantic bid to stop IRA murder, but rather complicity in it.

Both to blame, even for IRA horrors, don’t you see?

Meanwhile, amid the current terror threat our security and legal system is so constrained by (noble) human rights provisions that it is hard to get justice against determined dissidents.

The killings at Omagh and of David Black and Ronan Kerr have not led to murder convictions. The only murder conviction for Massereene was overturned. Some moderate nationalists backed appeal of Stephen Carroll’s murderers (which, in a rare victory for justice, failed).

But Paris shows that there is a tension between laudable and civilised rights-based legal provisions and the security that a free society needs against deranged murderers.

Everyone in the mainland UK apart from Corbynites accepts this (note how senior Labour politicians have openly contradicted his reticence about using force to stop killers).

We were all appalled by Paris. I was one of the many people who, despite the widespread backlash against such gestures, had no hesitation in changing my Facebook profile picture to the French flag, in solidarity with one of the greatest civilisations in history.

On both sides of the border on this island, all but a lunatic fringe spurned any suggestion that the Paris gunmen had a justification.

Yet even moderate unionists can be almost embarrassed to mention the terror we had here. It seems impolite when the political representatives of the group behind Kingsmill, Claudy, La Mon, Teebane and Birmingham are working the system (and they are).

I mention republican atrocities, rather than the disgusting loyalist massacres of Greysteel, Ormeau Road, McGurks, Loughinisland or Dublin-Monaghan, because there is no push to justify those crimes against humanity.

It is not contradictory for a unionist to back the 1998 Belfast Agreement, to accept the context in NI has changed and that SF have a mandate but to believe terrorists guilty of grievous crimes. And to believe that amid the mayhem, a restrained British state prevented civil war.

The moderate unionist Trevor Ringland cannot be accused of ambivalence about loyalist murder so it was significant when he wrote to this newspaper last week to say that the distortion of history has gone too far.

Mr Ringland mentioned the IRA gang that claims it was not about to murder an informer (as was the fate of all other informers) when it was raided as it grilled one such captive. They won compensation.

There will be widespread outrage at such rewards in any circumstances, let alone one in which the security forces who did so much to secure this country are being hounded as old men.

People across the Province will be cheering on Mr Ringland, who says it is time to chase brazen terrorists through the civil courts.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor