By Jack Holland
Less than a week after the Provisional IRA took the momentous step and began decommissioning, a murder occurred in Northern Ireland that has received little if any attention elsewhere.
A 30-year-old Protestant, Charles Folliard, was shot dead outside his Catholic girlfriend’s house in Strabane, Co. Tyrone. The police reportedly described it as a “professional” hit. It was not clear why exactly Folliard was a target. Years earlier, he had been linked to the Ulster Defense Association, and had served time in prison for involvement in a conspiracy to murder a Catholic. But information about him suggested that he had long ago cut his links with the UDA. However, local republicans have carried out attacks on such targets before. In 1990, for instance, they murdered David Pollock, after ramming his car and shooting him as he was on his way for visit his girlfriend. Pollock had been in the Ulster Defense Regiment, but had left it seven years before.
If the reasons for Folliard’s murder are murky, the attribution as to who might be responsible for it was also far from clear. The police blamed republicans. Though they did not say which variety, the hints seem to be that it was not the Provisional IRA. A leading Sinn Fein spokesman, Pat Doherty, who is also MP for West Tyrone in the British parliament, emphatically denied that the Provisionals were to blame. Of the two dissident factions, the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, CIRA is known to have at least one active service unit in the area — it has carried out a series of attacks in and around Derry City, including bomb attacks on army bases and an attempted mortar attack on a police station.
It was only last week that it emerged from police sources that the perpetrators of the attack probably belonged to the Irish National Liberation Army. Over the years, INLA has been responsible for some of the most sensational attacks in the history of the Northern conflict, including the assassination of Conservative Party chairman Airey Neave in March 1979 and loyalist leader Billy “King Rat” Wright in December 1997. Apart from disputes with local criminals in Dublin, little has been heard from the group since it called a cease-fire in 1998.
The killing might be seen as a dark cloud on what was a brightening horizon in the North over the last few weeks. The beginning of decommissioning was holding out hopes of finally resolving a dispute that had gnawed at the heart of the Good Friday agreement for three years. The IRA demonstrated in the most direct way that as far as it is concerned, its armed campaign against Northern Ireland is well and truly finished. The signals of the changes to come were there from about 1993, and they became stronger with time for those who cared to pay attention or who weren’t blinded by their own anti-republican propaganda.
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Another provision of the agreement, power-sharing and devolved government, has now finally been allowed to steady itself, hopefully long enough to prove that it can be an effective vehicle for community reconciliation.
The same week came the announcement that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had vanished into the history books, to be replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It is in relation to this change that the murder of Folliard may have the most ominous implications. The new force will be a cross-community service, and its first constables will be walking the streets of Northern Ireland by the spring of next year.
PSNI can only achieve its goal of becoming an acceptable police force to both the nationalist and unionist communities if it is allowed to operate in an environment free from terror and the prospect of terror. This makes it extremely vulnerable to anyone who is ruthless enough to kill in order to undermine the new effort at creating a cross-community police service. With the murder of Folliard, the INLA has reminded us that that ruthlessness is still there.
The same day that the attack on the United States took place, dissident republicans in the Derry area carried out an attempted ambush on an RUC patrol which had been lured to an abandoned car near where a bomb had been planted. Fortunately, the plot failed. If such an attack succeeded in killing members of the new force, it would immediately put constraints on its ability to police Nationalist districts. Suspicions would develop, creating friction and hostility between the populace and the police service. At that point, dissident republicans (RIRA, CIRA or INLA) would have already achieved their aim.
It was this kind of pressure that made it impossible for PSNI’s predecessor, the RUC, from ever developing as a “normal” police force, try as it might. Though the RUC was conceived from the start as a paramilitary force, whose primary aim was the defense of Northern Ireland, from time to time real efforts were mounted to attract Nationalists into its ranks and to demilitarize it, as in 1969 with the publication of the Hunt Report. The force was disarmed, its auxiliaries in the B-Specials liquidated, and a Police Authority established. Unfortunately, the timing could not have been worse. Within a year, the Provisional IRA was killing police officers. Soon an all-out and ruthless campaign was under way which would claim the lives of over 300 constables and seriously injure many thousands more. Off-duty officers were murdered in front of their families. Catholic members of the force were especially singled out for attack. Even ex-RUC men where killed; in one instance a 65-year-old retired reservist and his wife were murdered. (Gerry Adams commented, with mind-boggling understatement, that it was “patently not a good operation.”)
Conditions have changed, of course. The peace process has the support of the vast majority of Nationalists. The SDLP has taken its place of the new policing board. How would it respond if the INLA or one of the dissident groups began a murder campaign against the new police force? The only way to prevent the growth of suspicion and hostility between the community and the police would be if Nationalists offered the police their full cooperation. To do this would mean overcoming generations of alienation from the forces of law and order. But if the Nationalists’ answer to murder was to close the door on the murderers and give them no succor, then the hope of a genuine, democratic police service might be realized.