The past few weeks in Northern Ireland reminded me of Sherlock Holmes's comment about the importance of the "observation of trifles". On the surface the evidence may suggest that we shouldn't get too worried about events in Belfast and Derry – one politician described it to me as follows: "It's that time of year, after all, and the trouble is restricted to a couple of areas." But closer observation reveals disturbing signs that something is happening which should worry all of us who value democracy and political stability.
In Derry there have been blast and petrol bombs, rioting, shots fired at the police and orchestrated attacks on the mostly unionist area known as the Fountain. Some commentators have tried to underplay the seriousness and significance of the events, claiming it’s mostly young people, some of whom aren’t even in their teens. But none of this happens accidentally. People, irrespective of age, don’t suddenly decide – just because there have been weeks of sunshine – to attack their neighbours, erect barricades, toss bombs and lure police into areas where gunmen are waiting. All of this was orchestrated. It is terrorism.
The political/governing/electoral centre has collapsed: and history indicates that when the centre collapses there is a tendency for non-democratic forces to step in
Meanwhile, in east Belfast and in Newtownards – mostly unionist areas – vehicles were hijacked and torched. A suspected pipe bomb was detonated close to police. A series of security alerts resulted in main roads being closed and, for a while, newly-arrived passengers were advised to stay in Belfast City Airport rather than try to get home. Masked men used burning cars to block roads close to the Ulster Hospital – one of Northern Ireland’s main hospitals. Earlier, the police issued a statement warning that loyalist paramilitaries were planning to “orchestrate and participate in serious disorder”. Like Derry it was all orchestrated. It is terrorism. Like Derry it was about setting your own rules for your own territory.
One thing is certain when it comes to Northern Ireland: terrorism is always orchestrated. Terrorism is always pre-planned. And terrorism doesn’t just disappear when the rain begins and the “marching season” ends. In two main cities terrorist groups were able, with considerable ease, to put people on the streets and place the security forces under severe operational pressure.
It was also clear that no mainstream political party was able to use its influence to prevent or end this terrorism. The best they could come up with – and I’m not dismissing the importance of it – was a joint statement ending with: “We want to see a society where people can live together without the threat of intimidation or violence. Those who engage in such tactics must be shown that they will not succeed.”
But how, precisely, will they be shown? Northern Ireland has not had an Assembly/Executive for 18 months. The secretary of state has refused to take responsibility for 18 months. The ongoing Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry has revealed a picture of a congenitally dysfunctional form of governance. The civil service – which has been complicit in the dysfunctionalism – has had severe restrictions imposed upon its ability to make decisions without ministerial approval. MLAs remain on full salary. Key decisions are not made. The mountain of problems gets bigger by the day.
Put bluntly, the political/governing/electoral centre has collapsed: and history indicates that when the centre collapses there is a tendency for non-democratic forces to step in. It is, of course, at times like this that the centre should do everything required to restore order and regain respect from the broader electorate. In order words, prove that they can and will work together; show those “who engage in such tactics” – and those who might be tempted to support them – that there is no place for born-again terrorism in Northern Ireland.
At some point – tomorrow would be good – the local parties need to take responsibility for collective government
Sadly, yet predictably, that's not happening. Sinn Féin had already condemned what was happening in Derry, as well as being co-signee of Wednesday's joint statement. Yet a few days earlier Gerry Adams – who must have known that it was a particularly unhelpful comment – used a platform at the annual republican commemoration in the memorial garden at Mullaghbawn to say that Sinn Féin would continue to demand a border poll on Irish unity.
Irish Language Act
Arlene Foster embarked on a campaign to "reach out" and insists that she is serious about rebooting the Executive with Sinn Féin. Yet her MPs were making it clear at Westminster that an Irish Language Act, or anything like it, remained a non-runner. For good measure the Orange Order confirmed that it, too, remained opposed to an Irish Language Act. If that remains the position – and I have no reason to think it won't – then there won't be talks any time soon.
What we’ve seen in Derry and east Belfast – and I expect it to spread to other areas – is a knock-on consequence of what happens when the political centre collapses. For long periods between 1998 and 2016, even though there were still huge problems and institutional hiccups, comfort was taken from the mantra: “Well, it’s better than it used to be.” But that response means nothing any more. When there is no power being exercised from the centre and no obvious willingness by the centre to pull together, then it’s hardly surprising that power will drift elsewhere.
An absence of legitimate power, growing disrespect for the mainstream political classes, increasing challenges to law and order, scant evidence of the “new” Northern Ireland promised in 1998 and a young post-Agreement generation which has little faith in the prospect of change anytime soon, is the perfect recipe for terrorism to thrive and spread. At some point – and tomorrow would be good – the local parties need to take responsibility for collective government. Because at some point – and it could be the day after tomorrow – it will be too late.
Alex Kane is a political commentator based in Belfast