Our understanding is shaped by our perception. How we perceive is how we think.
A trio of burials had ‘armed struggle’ advocates honour the patriot dead in demonstrations laced with race hatred of the British. Quick on their heels, a loyalist parade full of British symbolism, including the soldier F logo.
In May, gunmen in balaclavas fired shots before Peter ‘Pepe’ Rooney (63) was laid to rest. Rooney was in a PIRA unit at the final stages of mounting a car bomb attack in Gibraltar. Mairead Farrell (31), Sean Savage (23) and Danny McCann (30) were shot dead by the SAS in 1988.
Rooney escaped, according to republican storytellers. In follow-up searches, a 140lb of Semtex explosive and 200 rounds of ammunition were recovered. Rooney’s GHQ unit was responsible for many murders.
Days after, masked men with one shakily firing a rifle to honour INLA chief Martin McElkerney (57). The infamous leader was convicted of murdering a soldier and two children – Kevin Waller (20), Kevin Valliday (11) and Stephen Bennett (14) – in 1982. Some 20 men flanked and carried the coffin.
How they concealed their faces was looser than at Rooney’s send off. Identifying them is not hard.
In June, the funeral of PIRA co-founder Billy McKee (97). Unlike the rest, no guns. Where the mask slipped, literally, with the INLA cortege, it was not even brought to McKee’s. Around 30 people marched in uniforms with insignia that reads ‘D Company, 2nd Battalion PIRA, Lower Falls.
The brazenness seems due to a ‘West Belfast Cultural Society’ insignia they clearly believe indemnifies against prosecution. I am not so sure.
D Company’s record is deplorable. Its leader, Brendan Hughes, told the Boston College history project that it was behind Bloody Friday in Belfast in 1972. Nineteen car bombs exploded in a manic 60-minutes killing 9 people and injuring 130. The battalion disappeared Jean McConville (37) and murdered scores of security forces and civilians.
As for McKee, he was too much a hawk, even for the hawks.
Last, the parade. A Protestant band wore, essentially, a soldier F logo in the Apprentice Boys march in Derry. The Parachute Regiment is loathed in the city. Soldier F, the only one from it to stand trial for murder from Bloody Sunday. Nationalist leaders call the killings of 14 innocent civilians by soldiers in 1972 murders.
Conversely, for unionists, soldiers defended democracy from republicans who waged war on the people. Squaddies thrust into a deadly and confusing cauldron. Many see soldier F and others like him scapegoated by a political process that appeases the Provos.
The police response in each was to sit back, except for the parade, the only one with no terrorist paraphernalia. The PSNI deemed the logo provocative and risked violent reaction from republicans. For the funerals, notwithstanding the illegal possession of firearms, of which a man was later arrested but released without charge.
In the Terrorism Act it is a crime to “wear clothing or carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of the proscribed organisation.” Any prosecutions here, then?
In contrast, in Londonderry, police interpreted the law in a way that predicted disorder. To prevent such, they intervened. Although I doubt that anyone will be put before a court.
PIRA and INLA are proscribed terrorist organisations, the same as Al Qa’ida and Al Shabaab. The security forces are not. Politics, however, blurred the distinction and in the process set the moral tone. A legacy regime, in essence, sanitises and decriminalises terrorism, retrospectively, equating police and soldiers to terrorists.
From a playpark named after a convicted ‘volunteer’ through collusion claims tainting security forces to defining victim to include terrorists injured by their own unlawful actions. Society is reflecting the Provo view of the Troubles and many unionists see this extending to the PSNI hierarchy. Last weekend, proof of such, in their eyes.
The space vacated by local politics puts the police into positions out of which one side will always take offence. That said, at the strategic level the PSNI would benefit from reviewing its approach to incidents of this type, individually and collectively, particularly where people affiliate to murderous ideology.
Yes, context is crucial and differs from one incident to another, but so is consistency and tangible outcomes. For a ‘sit back’ tactic prosecutions need to be brought quicker and be more visible. And if none arise, where possible this is explained. It will help to counter the perception of politically-driven two tier policing.
Frustratingly, the big beneficiaries are the extremes.
A handful of republicans who hate the British and a handful of loyalists who hate the Irish. In the middle, the police. Familiar territory. Effective policing can prevent a divided society from tearing itself apart but cannot bring it together. Only politics can.
Frontline cops in Londonderry were not just dealing with a parade but a build-up of grievances from republican displays that, in the minds of many, were not policed properly.
The sense of injustice sharpened days before with a PSNI tactical withdrawal from a republican bonfire in Belfast replete with race-hatred posters and a Sinn Féin MEP’s Tiocfaidh ár lá rant in Strabane.
All four incidents were provocative, insensitive and hurtful to many innocent victims, as the Governor of the Apprentice Boys, to his credit, recognised for the parade. Sadly, few political leaders follow suit. Quick to call the ‘other side’ out but not their own.
The inconsistency often manifests in hypocrisy, exposing police to greater danger from violent extremists and harming the neighbourhoods they seek to control.
Perception depends on where you are standing. To be enlightened, many need to be moved to a different spot for a different view. Forcing the shift is tough. It takes courage. Politically, this is in perilous short supply.
William Matchett is author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA and Adjunct Fellow at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for Conflict Prevention, Maynooth University, Ireland.