We can’t stop in our strides towards peace

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SOMETIMES it is easy to forget what it used to be like in Northern Ireland.

Army foot patrols everywhere, the sound of an explosion in the city centre, pavements covered with shards of broken glass, the paramilitary displays, the killings, the maimings and the anguish of the bereaved.

We used to live in a time when the only politics was the politics of the last atrocity and any progress towards peace and prosperity was impossible.

I wonder how many others were revisited by unwanted memories, as I was, when they watched the coverage of the funeral of prison officer David Black earlier this week, who was so brutally murdered by dissident republicans?

Today former paramilitaries of all hues often talk of their strategies during the years of conflict, when all I could really see was death and mayhem, often visited upon people in a random fashion, so often followed by TV shots of a forlorn crowd gathered outside a church whilst the dismembered voice of a minister of religion tried to comfort the bereaved huddled in the pews within.

For many years we were trapped within the Troubles. Republicans were unable to secure a united Ireland, yet security forces were unable to defeat them, whilst loyalists continued a campaign of unremitting ferocity, the purpose of which I can’t really pretend to understand.

When you look back at how things used to be, progress has been remarkable and it is to the great credit of political leaders here who are, however painfully, building a peaceful new Northern Ireland out of the mayhem of old.

So how much of a threat do dissident republicans pose and what is to be done?

All mainstream political parties have rightly condemned them and there is a palpable sense of unity in facing them down. It has been correctly pointed out that they have not succeeded in winning a single seat in any elected body in Northern Ireland.

Their aims are unachievable: the vast majority of the population approve the present political arrangements and furthermore there is no appetite for a united Ireland in the Republic not least because it is an economic impossibility.

So why would they pursue an ambition which is unrealisable? There are probably two reasons for this. The first is that a rump of republicans are disaffected with their leadership, they set out to achieve a united Ireland and believe that Sinn Fein has failed to deliver and has betrayed their cause. Some of these people are highly experienced in the use of both guns and explosives and are therefore very dangerous indeed.

It’s hard to imagine that the answer to the “old guard” hard core republican dissident lies anywhere other than through PSNI and the courts.

But what we collectively need to be every bit as concerned about is that dissidents are tapping into something else, something real and tangible and something that could pose a greater threat in the medium to long term – that is the disaffection and alienation that many young people feel in working class areas. Young people who have left school with little or nothing and have no prospect of work.

Areas of high youth unemployment whether republican or loyalist are fertile breeding ground for older “conflict entrepreneurs” who can turn that disaffection to their own ends.

The dissident movement may be small, but evidence suggests that it is growing and that there are, albeit one or two areas, which are slipping out of mainstream republican control and have become fertile recruiting grounds for the dissidents.

If the dissidents do manage to recruit and to arm and to train significant numbers of new recruits then they will pose an increasing threat to society, and there is evidence that what is happening in republican areas is being replicated in loyalist areas as well.

So whilst mainstream politicians are correct in stating that support for those trying to bring down the peace process is currently very low and that they can and will be faced down, we also need to be alert to future threats.

We have made huge strides in recent years, but the business of building a peaceful and prosperous society is far from finished. If we are to ensure the isolation and extinction of the new men of violence, then we need more than a security solution: we need to ensure that every citizen in our new Northern Ireland enjoys a peace dividend. That means creating the opportunity for all our young people to have a stake in society, which in turns means creating hope.