Northern Irish politics is, as a rule, boring. Think about the material you have to work with. Between Martin McGuinness' lachrymose banalities and Peter Robinson's rigid bigotry (there is a great deal of both in Stormont), there is little room to be inspiring. The only occasional frisson is when one of the demented crackpots of the hard right says something unspeakably ignorant and stupid. Sammy Wilson, the environment minister, denies that there is such a thing as man-made global warming, and that ensures that his smug, dopy-eyed, reddened face gets on the news for a week. (Sammy is also, you may care to know, an Ulster Jobs for Ulster Workers guy). Likewise, when Iris Robinson MP, spouse to First Minister Peter, describes homosexuality as being "viler" than child abuse, there follows a brief uproar before the the usual run of anti-gay violence is resumed with vengeance. (Not that Nothern Ireland has a problem with exaggerated machismo - anyone who says it does will receive a boot in the ballicks.) Though I have not visited NI for years, and don't feel much connection to it, it is hard not to be embarrassed by the kinds of people who get elected in that neck of the woods. They are so obviously unfit for the job. They should be spreading mulch and spouting misanthropy out in the suburbs and farming communities.
At any rate, this grotesque charade is underwritten by a neoliberal and sectarian consensus that is impoverishing an already vitiated and lacklustre social landscape. The parties compete not on the basis of class issues or even left-right ideologies as such, but strictly on the Nationalist-Unionist dichotomy. To be represented, one has to accept one or other label. Meanwhile, the only answer that any of the political parties offer to the poverty and social misery of the statelet is to turn it into a sort of corporate theme park, open up investment opportunities by privatizing and cutting business taxes. Intriguingly, this is one question on which even Ian Paisley favours a 'united Ireland', in that both he and Martin McGuinness favoured cutting corporation taxes to 12.5%, the level pertaining in the Republic of Ireland. If the name were not already taken, the place could soon be re-dubbed the Northern Marianas. No wonder people are anxious to get the hell out of the place. Emigration is at record levels, and a quarter of the permanent residents have spent more than six months abroad. People get as far away as they can for as long as they can, before family commitments or whatever else it is draws them back in. This is grim stuff, but it doesn't make good copy. It is boring.
No wonder that the newspapers are almost uniformly treating the attack on a military base in county Antrim last night as back-to-the-good-old-days. They are not the only ones to see it that way. Ian Paisley Jr., who is his father with the interesting bits removed, apparently remarked that the attacks represent a "defining moment", adding that "For the last 10 years people believed things like this happened in foreign countries, places like Basra. Unfortunately it has returned to our doorstep." How to begin to parse a thought like that? With the suggestion, from a Unionist, that the occupation of the north of Ireland in some sense recalls the occupation of Iraq? Or with the insinuation that the relative peace since Omagh was illusory, merely what "people believed"? Actually, the Unionist right has for some time been trying to increase their leverage by highlighting an alleged resurgence in 'dissident' Republicanism, first raised by Sir Hugh Orde. It would be just dandy for them if there was a plausible new terrorist threat with which to either undermine the Assembly, weaken the Republicans, or just mobilise a disheartened electoral base (the DUP were supposed to chase Sinn Fein out of Stormont, not form a coalition with them).
Are we really on the verge of a new war, as the Unionists suggest, and as so much lurid commentary in the British media implies? Hardly. Whoever carried out last night's attack doesn't have the muscle to duke it out with the British state, even supposing it isn't penetrated from top to bottom by intelligence moles. The Provos fought that war for a quarter of a century, and could only reach a stalemate. That failed guerilla strategy was precisely what resulted in the timid consensus politics of today's Sinn Fein. Groups like the 'Real IRA' and 'Continuity IRA' don't take this point, of course. Representing dissenting minorities in the Provisional IRA's leadership at the time of the Good Friday agreement and the peace process that preceded it, they still insist that a Republic can be acquired by an elite armed struggle. If it can't, then all has been in vain. As Bobby Sands' younger sister, former Provisional IRA executive member, and current 'Real IRA' member Bernadette Sands McKevitt put it: "Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state". The blood that was shed in the course of that war is indeed hard to square with such an inglorious outcome. But ironically it was this insistence that led the 'Real IRA' to undertake their most infamous attack, the Omagh bombing, which itself was the final nail in the coffin for this kind of combat Republicanism. The idea that the armed struggle could be revived today is frankly absurd. Gerry Adams can openly call for his constituents to support the police hunt because he knows full well that the Catholic working class is sick to death of the futile armed struggle, the brutal 'discipline' that went with it and the harsh counterinsurgency of the British state. There is no popular constituency for this kind of fight.
The dull reality is that this shooting amounts to a brief, bloody intrusion on a perpetually gloomy twilight of increasing sectarianism (there are more 'peace walls' than ever before), rising poverty (the worst rates in the UK), and violent criminality (often by the husks of former combatant organisations). It is the convulsion of a movement experiencing its last gasps, one whose purpose was just but whose means were always ruinous. No one who matters need panic. Soon enough, everyone can get on with squandering and selling out yet another generation.