Voices: John Caldwell shooting: The New IRA is exploiting the inactivity at Stormont
The one thing that can always be relied upon when the looming spectre of the “Troubles” rears its ugly head is the barrage of cliché that follows. Words like “progress” and stark admonitions about “men of violence” sit in close proximity to self-congratulatory soliloquies about “peace” and reminders that “these people do not represent us”.
On the face of it, these things are true. The north of Ireland has changed significantly since the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago, and the stranglehold paramilitaries have over their communities has become less palpable. But it would be foolish to think that progress has been linear, or indeed – to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama – that reaching “the end of history” is a realistic or achievable goal.
Case in point, the shooting of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in Omagh on Wednesday night. Following a football training session with his son, the 48-year-old was putting equipment into the boot of his car when he was reportedly approached by two men, chased down, then shot several times in front of a large group of children. He managed to make his way into the foyer of the nearby Killyclogher Road sports complex before collapsing on the stairwell and receiving first aid from members of the public.
Condemnation of the incident since then has been widespread. When it was announced on Friday that the PSNI had arrested five men in connection with the shooting, and was investigating links with the so-called New IRA, leaders from all five main political parties made a rare show of solidarity; standing shoulder to shoulder with police Chief Constable Simon Byrne. Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill made it clear that “we stand united as one voice in condemnation” while DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson warned the perpetrators: “You are not the future of this place. We stand against you.”
It would be tempting, therefore, to think that the circumstances of this crime might mark a turning point for renewed peace in the north of Ireland. That the grim reality of a man being gunned down in front of his son after a football game might shift whatever nihilistic minority mindset still clings to violence to achieve its aims. But how many times have we been here before?
Didn’t we hear a similar public outcry when writer and journalist Lyra McKee was murdered by the New IRA in April 2019, or when Belfast community worker Ian Ogle was murdered by the UVF in January 2019, or when prison officer David Black was murdered on his way to work in November 2012, or when Catholic officer Ronan Kerr was blown up by a car bomb in Killyclogher in 2011 – not far from where John Caldwell was shot on Wednesday?
The truth is that there are still people in the north of Ireland for whom peace is neither realistic nor desirable. Who thrive off misery, not for the achievement of some political aim, but because the climate of fear it fosters gives them an irresistible facsimile of power. And if they’re allowed, these same people will use that petty authority to sow discord during times of instability; exploiting larger societal issues like the cost of living crisis or the stalemate over the NI Protocol to push their influence further.
The trick is not just to show why this vision of society doesn’t work, but to show that there is an alternative that does work: investing in communities where young people are facing a future of either monotonous, low-paid work or outright unemployment. Alleviating pressures on the NHS by incentivising frontline workers with higher pay, job security and access to the kind of equipment needed to deliver quality care.
It also means that the five main political parties in the north of Ireland – especially the DUP – need to accept a resolution on the NI Protocol, get the devolved institutions at Stormont back up and running, and start delivering the changes that the region so badly needs.
Until then, like a black hole, the nihilism at the heart of the New IRA’s philosophy will only continue to grow and pull everything which has been worked for into its annihilating gravitational maw. Let now be the time that our politicians give us the bare minimum by returning to work and offer hope by getting back to what they were elected to do.
James Patterson is a poet from the north of Ireland. His debut collection Bandit Country was shortlisted for the 2022 TS Eliot Prize