The despicable murder of Pc Ronan Kerr is a tragedy for his family and a terrible episode for the Police Service of Nothern Ireland. He was killed, I surmise, because he was a Roman Catholic, like Pc Stephen Carroll before him (in April 2009). Together they are the only police officers murdered in the ten year history of the PSNI.
That decade has been remarkable for its relative peace. The political landscape has been turbulent, but the contrast with The Troubles is profound. In that period (1968-1998), the Royal Ulster Constabulary (precursor to the PSNI) lost more than 300 officers to terrorism.
The PSNI is a product of the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday 1998), which called for “a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland”. Whether fairly or unfairly, the RUC was divisive: broadly supported by Protestants and distrusted by Catholics.
At the time of the Belfast Agreement, Catholic police officers made up about 8% of the RUC. In the nearest census (2001), Catholics represented 44% of Northern Ireland’s population.
For the PSNI, a recruitment quota was introduced. 50% of new officers were Protestant and 50% Catholic. Now 30% of all PSNI officers are Catholic. The PSNI remains unbalanced, but not absurdly so.
Politically, much has changed. Many parties, including Sinn Fein, worked together to negotiate the Belfast Agreement. But it was never formally endorsed by Sinn Fein and from the outset it was openly rejected by the DUP. Now the two parties lead the Northern Ireland Executive together.
Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable to imagine Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing an office together. One was a provocative firebrand Protestant minister, the other a former commander of the Provisional IRA. But their relationship as First Minister and Deputy First Minister was so good they became known as the Chuckle Brothers.
The relationship between Peter Robinson and Mr McGuinness is considered a little cooler. But their working relationship is broadly effective.
The Executive would not exist at all had Sinn Fein not resolved to support the policing structures in 2007. Its lack of support had been the major stumbling block. Before that, it was the issue of weapons decommissioning. Both issues were extremely difficult for Sinn Fein, but their resolution was essential to winning unionists’ confidence.
There are some republicans who remain deeply opposed to the PSNI and continue to see it as a reviled instrument of the British state. They are especially unhappy that Catholics feel they can join such a force, and they see Sinn Fein as traitors for supporting it. They are few in number, but that is cold comfort to the families of Pc Carroll and Pc Kerr.
What may help, just a little, is that abhorrent events often have a habit of galvanising public opinion. The public appetite for peace became stronger still after the Omagh bombing, and their patience with extremists evaporated after the murder of Pc Carroll. He was killed in Craigavon. That Pc Kerr was killed in Omagh is ironic and laden with symbolism. The Omagh bombing in August 1998 killed 29 people and two unborn babies. It was the worst single atrocity of The Troubles, but it was also the last.
The Omagh bombing was condemned by both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Their words would have sounded hollow to many victims of the IRA, but they were important; they symbolised a recognition that the public would tolerate violence no longer.
This week, on Monday, in a display of unity, Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, was flanked by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, along with the Justice Minister, Alliance’s David Ford. Mr McGuinness’s message included this:
There has been much discussion of the whole issue of young Catholics joining the police and the effect that the killing of Ronan will have on them. I know there are many young Catholics in the police who are very nationalist and indeed republican minded. I am as proud of them as Nuala Kerr [Pc Kerr’s mother] is of Ronan.
There was a time when the IRA targeted police officers and Sinn Fein behaved as apologists. In its prime, the IRA created no-go areas for the RUC. In effect, it acted as a separate police force in certain areas, dispensing summary justice.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary was seen both as a component of the British war machine and as a Protestant stronghold. Catholics who joined the RUC struggled with intolerance from their fellow officers and cries of treachery from their own communities. Many paid with their lives.
The fact that Sinn Fein now supports the police, and that Martin McGuinness expresses pride in young Catholic officers, is astonishing. But it is just one example in a long list of developments over the past decade or so which would have seemed unthinkable not long before.
Mr Kerr’s funeral took place at a Roman Catholic church in County Tyrone on Wednesday. Peter Robinson was among those paying their respects. As a prominent tribal Protestant, he had never before attended a Requiem Mass, but there is a time for everything:
It’s a personal decision I have taken. Not everyone will agree with it. But I hope people will understand that when dissidents murder a young man, it is right that the political establishment stands up and makes it very clear that they stand with this family.
Northern Ireland stands united against the killers. The murder of Pc Kerr was committed by nihilistic thugs with virtually no popular support. It is a tragedy, a reminder of an era which felt like it would never end. But it did.
Northern Ireland is not a perfect place. It still has its problems. The transition to peace continues. But the threats to peace are isolated and impotent. The Troubles are over.