A retired chief superintendent who spent his whole career battling against the IRA has warned that the government’s policy of closing rural garda stations will lead to a comeback for the terrorist organization.
Former Special Branch officer Peter Maguire has claimed that the closures, which have effectively ended community policing in rural areas, have paved the way for a regrouping of republican terrorists.
The IRA, which wound down its operation following an historic 1997 ceasefire and engaged in a long and arduous process of demilitarization, has seen a number of smaller, hard-core splinter groups spring up in its stead. Many of these groups were founded by disgrutled ex-IRA personnel who did not agree with the peace process but more recently they have been attracting younger members who may not even remember the worst of The Troubles. Some were only toddlers when the ceasefire took hold.
Mr Maguire told a meeting of Fíanna Fáil supporters that support for paramilitary splinter groups remains particularly strong in rural Ireland and has seen growth once again among teenage boys and younger men.
The closure of rural stations, he said, has led to a dramatic decline in rural community policing and serious gaps in intelligence about membership and intent in isolated areas. With less and less interation between gardaí and members of the public in places far remote from operational Garda stations the old days when local gardaí knew everyone on their beat by name, and vice versa, are long gone.
Citing recent republican violence, including a bombing in Derry stopped just minutes before it took place, the violent shooting of Peter Butterly in broad daylight in County Meath, other executions over the past 12 months and an increase in extortion, punishment beatings, kidnappings, and racketeering on both sides of the border, Mr Maguire has noted that the peace process is in real danger of slipping backwards into the mire of tit-for-tat killings, murder and mayhem we thought we had left behind.
“The withdrawal of police services from around the country” he said, “is very, very misguided.”
The straggling remnants of republican terrorist organizations, which had been waning throughout the years of the Celtic Tiger, have evolved from a few disparate, amateur cells of thugs into a well-organized, ruthless network of criminals. High unemployment and the reduction in policing have led to fertile pickings for recruiters and modern telecommunications have made it easy to bind numerous cells of disgruntled young people into a cohesive, threatening whole.
As reported by Jim Cusack in today’s Independent, a new umbrella group, led by a man known to have been a high ranking officer in the IRA during its final years, has started to organize these cells and has taken up the name and mantle of the old terrorist organization, superceding the “Real” IRA, the “Continuity” IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann. Provos known to An Garda and to the PSNI – both north and south of the border – seem to have taken up arms once again. Some have even threatened the life of Martin McGuinness, known to have been active and extremely high ranking in the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s – and probably into the 1990s – for his role in the peace process and his stance against republican violence in recent years.
The NI politician has said he takes the threats seriously, but will not be intimidated by his former comrades and subordinates.
It would seem clear that re-armament is ongoing and that the “substantial” amount of weapons decommissioned under the scrutiny of Canada’s General John de Chastellain was not, as had previously been thought, comprehensive. A true inventory of the weapons known to have been destroyed was never released, on foot of an agreement made with paramilitary groups at the time. It is also likely that newer, more advaced weaponry continues to be smuggled into the country.
This is all playing out in a radically changed Irish policing landscape, and the closure of well over 100 rural Garda stations has played directly into the hands of a newly energized, re-organized and recommitted cadré of “old school” IRA members and enthusiastic youngbloods who are unashamedly picking up where their predecessors left off almost 20 years ago.
Peter Maguire put it best when he said “the withdrawal of the police from many many rural areas, and urban areas as well, means that ultimately the police will become a visitor to the community if something happens. They will no longer represent a presence in the community. They will no longer be in a position in the community to consolidate the kind of community support that is necessary for effective policing.
“Many in our time worked in all sorts of specialist units but we have learned over the years that the fundamental and most basic element of policing is police presence in the delivery of a frontline policing service…I have never known a situation where there are so many police stations closed. I have never known a situation where there are so many communities living in fear and apprehension. The very first duty of An Garda Siochana is to prevent crime. The detection of crime only comes into play when that first responsibility fails, and you prevent crime by a presence.”
That presence has been negated, and the support network hard-won by gardaí in smaller communities eviscerated, by bottom-line policies that put money ahead of public safety or the stability of a peace process that is still nascent. A generation of reconciliation and decades of hard-learned lessons may yet be for naught. An increasingly alienated and detached Garda presence in some of the country’s forgotten corners may yet prove to be the final crack in a dam which had almost halted the flow of a gory river fed by the blood of two communities which are only now coming to terms with the brutality and inhumanity with which they treated each other for so long.