At 07.30 this morning, David Black, a Northern Ireland Prison Service officer was ambushed and shot dead on his way to work by Republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. Though the actions of violent Republicans are often portrayed as emanating from a sense of blood lust or barbarism, I have previously argued that this is not the case and this morning’s killing is no exception. Black’s death was intended demonstrate capability, improve the moral of violent Republicans and escalate the on-going prison dispute. Unfortunately, it may succeed in doing just that.
Despite the formation of a so called “new IRA”; the past few months have not been good ones for violent Republicans, with attacks down by 20% on last year. The recent downgrade of the threat posed to Great Britain by Republicans, from “substantial” to “moderate”, built upon a terrible month for violent Republicans who suffered a spate of arrests in October with over a dozen members held in Limerick, Belfast and Dublin. This has included high value members such as bomb makers and intelligence officers. Even the manner in which the formation of the “new IRA” (a merger of RAAD and the Real IRA) was announced actually highlighted weakness rather than strength. The announcement came in late July, the week leading up to the Olympics, when even a small device in Great Britain would have brought the attention of the world to the newly formed group. Rather than announcing its existence with an operation, the “new IRA” chose to hand a journalist a press release in a dark country road.
In contrast to this picture of degrading capability, this morning’s killing paints a picture of a highly organised and ruthless organisation capable of gathering detailed intelligence on the identity and movements of prison offers and then carrying out a killing in broad daylight. Though violent Republican groups are generally considered to be well infiltrated by informants, today’s attack demonstrates clearly that some unaffected cells remain. A cursory look at Facebook exchanges of Real IRA supporters indicates that today’s killing has certainly raised moral, with typical posts reading:
Victory to our Republican Prisoners of War
Good enuf for the vermin bastard. 1 less to worry about
Ford & Co are ultimately to blame. Their continued failure to implement the agreement, and continued torture of republican prisoners is the reasoning behind such attacks taking place.
great 2 hear TAL 32 im happy 2 hear this POW,S
The successive mention of Republican prisoners in the posts brings us to the second reason this killing was carried out; to escalate the on-going prison dispute. Though McDonald has described the attack on a prison officer as the opening of a “new front” by violent Republicans, anti-GFA Republicans (like the Provos before them) have long considered prisons to be on the front line of the conflict, as the above social media updates demonstrate. There is an on-going dispute relating to conditions between Republican prisoners and the authorities in Maghaberry high-security prison, where Black was a prison officer. Though an agreement was reached in 2010, this has not ended the dispute, as Republicans claim the agreement has not been implemented in full. The continued imprisonment of Marian Price is another flagship cause for violent Republicans. Indeed the chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association has directly linked the killing of Black to the Maghaberry dispute, stating:
“[I]f these dissidents think that this progresses their complaints any better, I have a message for them – they are wasting their time.”
Regardless of the fact that Black’s death is unlikely to lead to the resolution of the Maghaberry dispute, many of the possible reactions play into the hands of violent Republicans. The continued maltreatment of prisoners in Maghaberry is actually good for violent Republicans as it allows them to build a wide coalition in support of prisoner’s rights. Though graffiti openly praising the actions of groups such as the Real IRA is swiftly removed in Belfast, a mural by the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association (IRPWA), which speaks on behalf of Real IRA prisoners, has pride of place on the Falls road.
Henry McDonald has raised the chilling possibility that this morning’s events could provoke a Loyalist backlash, this would also play into the hands of violent Republicans who wish to undermine what they see as normalisation. [Edit: Black's family have specifically called for "no retaliation"]
The attack was designed to boost morale inside the violent Republican movement and engender a backlash. The best way to ensure the killers do not succeed in achieving their aims is for the prison service to continue to work for a human rights based settlement to the Maghaberry dispute; and of course, cross community condemnation of today’s actions.