The murder yesterday of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic PSNI officer, by violent Republicans has brought condemnation from across the political spectrum and left many asking who could believe that the seemingly arbitrary killing of unarmed police officers could advance the cause of Irish unity. The blame for this violence has often been pinned on a ‘blood lust’ and those responsible have been accused of having ‘no strategy’. Although it is true that these groups maintain that violent resistance is a duty (post to follow in the coming days on the ideology of violent Republicans), this violence is not arbitrarily applied.

Anti Good Friday Agreement Republican’s see the GFA as an attempt to ‘normalise’ British rule in Ireland, with the replacement of the RUC with the PSNI, a cosmetic change designed to ‘trick’ Catholics into accepting, and indeed, enforcing ‘foreign rule’. In an interview with the Irish News in 2010, Óglaigh na hÉireann stated that their strategy is to ‘expose the myth of normalisation’. The killing of Ronan Kerr is an attempt to enact this strategy.

Attacking PSNI officers generally, and Catholic officers specifically, serves two main purposes. The first of these is an attempt to derail ‘normalisation’ through turning the PSNI into a ‘force under fire’, like the RUC before it. A police force under constant threat of death has great difficulty acting in a normal fashion and engaging with the communities it hopes to Police.  The second reason the attack on Constable Kerr is significant, like the previous attempt on the life of Constable Peadar Heffron, is that these officers were Catholics. It is much harder to portray the PSNI as a Colonial Militia when Irish speaking GAA captains such as Constable Heffron are a part of that force; as such the targeting of Catholics is intended to discourage Catholics from joining the PSNI and to again turn policing in the North into the sole preserve of Protestants. This attempt to undermine the legitimacy and cross community nature of the PSNI and link it to the distrusted RUC also has a political element. Non violent anti Good Friday Agreement groups such as éirígí oppose the PSNI and distribute  posters and leaflets which read ‘Different name, same aim’.

A long running tactic of Armed Republican groups has been to garner support from within the nationalist community through a tough line on drug dealers and ‘hoods’, carrying out punishment shootings and beatings. An effective PSNI which deals adequately with crime blocks this potential avenue of support, making it all the more necessary for anti GFA Republicans to undermine the PSNI and ensure that the priorities of the force shift away from dealing with every day criminal issues towards tackling violent groups. This could potentially manifest itself through the PSNI making the same mistakes as the RUC before it, recruiting petty criminals and drug dealers from within the Nationalist community as informants, turning a blind eye to their actions in exchange for information on Republicans.

If this strategy of undoing ‘normalisation’ succeeds, the next steps seem less important, one member of IR.NET, a popular Republican forum, crudely summed up the position as follows:

[T]he feeling of the war will be everywhere once again and the spirit of Irish republicanism will spark in many of them, this is how we got some of the greatest volunteers during the conflict.

Violent Republicans kill to engender a reaction from the establishment, to bring Ireland back to the ‘troubles’. To over militarise the response to this killing, and those that will inevitably occur in the future, would be to play right into their hands.

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Written by Ross Frenett

Ross Frenett works at the London based think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where he is the Project Manager of the Against Violent Extremism network, a global network of former violent extremists, survivors of violent extremism, NGOs, academics, think tanks and private sector executives, who now share a common goal: to prevent young people from committing violence.