Jason Walsh: Sinn Féin's response to the killing of British soldiers in Northern Ireland is significant

The party had to condemn the killings without offering any support to the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland

A drive-by shooting doesn't mean the bad old days are back, but dissident republican activity puts Sinn Féin is in an awkward position.

Today's leader column in the Guardian describes the killing of two soldiers at Massereene army base in Antrim as an "attack on peace". It's a sentiment that Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams would agree with. In a press statement responding to the attack, Adams said: "Last night's attack was an attack on the peace process. It was wrong and counterproductive."

Adams went on to say that the dissidents have no support and no strategy to achieve a united Ireland, suggesting they intended to drive the British army back into the picture and a wedge between the people on the ground: "Their intention is to bring British soldiers back onto the streets. They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict."

Not everyone is convinced by Sinn Féin's response, however. The Daily Mail headlined its splash "Return of the IRA assassins ... but why won't Gerry Adams condemn British soldiers' murderers?"

Leaving aside the small issue that the Mail's headline is calculated to mislead – the IRA? Which IRA? The Provisional IRA? The Continuity IRA? The Real IRA? The Official IRA? – accusing the leader of Sinn Féin of making, "a cold and calculated political statement" ignores the significance of the party's response.

Sinn Féin's response to the attack was slow, but it was predictable. The Guardian reported it took 14 hours to issue a statement. No doubt much of that time was spent working out just how to walk the tightrope that Sinn Féin is forced to: condemn the killings but offer no support to the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland.

Adams' statement was significantly more condemnatory that that of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, president of Republican Sinn Féin, the small party linked to the still active Continuity IRA (CIRA): "While everyone regretted loss of life, the hard realities of the situation in Ireland must be faced." Even this much being admitted by the dissident group is bizarre.

The difficulty for Adams is compounded by the fact that Sinn Féin's policy seems to be to pretend that the peace process has made the Irish border an irrelevance. The party must position itself both ways, Janus-like, as the responsible party of government working hand-in-hand with unionists and also a radical republican party working to undo partition. The last thing that Sinn Féin wants to do is hand a propaganda victory to the dissidents. The party clearly fears that dissident groups could pick-up support if Sinn Féin is seen as losing its republican credentials.

The fact that Sinn Féin has gone as far as it has is significant. Northern Ireland's deputy first minister Martin McGuinness has already stated that those with information about the attack should come forward to the police. This is an astonishing statement from a Sinn Féin politician and self-admitted former IRA member and should not be ignored. Even the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson conceded this point.

Speaking to James Naughtie this morning on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Gerry Adams said that calls for the party to respond with a more emotional and fulsome condemnation, "[failed to] understand the history of history of this island or these islands" and described it as, "a complete distraction".

Adams went on to say: "Here we are in the wake of the first killings of British soldiers in God knows how many years and you want to parse a Sinn Féin statement?" He has a point. Adams noted that republicans don't want a British army presence in Ireland – why this comes as a surprise to anyone is a mystery. What is more significant is that he was at pains to point out he did not support the killings.

The pressure on Sinn Féin to join in the emotional reactions to the killings is immense, but ultimately pointless. No doubt Adams' performance on the Today programme saw him trying to waffle his way out of a corner, but Sinn Féin has been clear: the IRA's war is over. Adams's squirming, for once, won't be music to the ears of unionists but it is unlikely to cause significant political fallout.

Sinn Féin's guarded response is grounded in the day-to-day reality on the ground in Northern Ireland – at least in republican areas. No matter how much ink is spilled on the attack by outraged journalists, this latest shooting won't bring down the Northern Ireland assembly. As horrific as the killings are for the families of the victims, an isolated attack does not necessarily herald a return to wide-scale violence.


Jason Walsh

The GuardianTramp

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