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An old friend from Omagh, an ex-member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary called me to tell me of the attempted police killing.

Published: 23 February 2023

An old friend from Omagh, an ex-member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) — the predecessor of the Police Service of Northern Ireland — called me on Wednesday night to tell me of the attempted killing of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell.

It was from the same friend that I had heard first on the afternoon of August 15 1998 of the mass murder of the Omagh bombing – yes, in that same town – by the Real IRA, a splinter group which opposed the IRA’s ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement signed that same year.

In this latest attack, DCI Caldwell, an outstanding policeman revered by his colleagues for solving high-profile murders, was shot by masked gunmen in the presence of his son and two other young teens.

DCI Caldwell had received threats from republicans in the past – to be expected as one of the best-known detectives in Northern Ireland – yet assumed he was safe to continue with the work of coaching young footballers at an Omagh youth sports centre.

He clearly underestimated the wickedness and cowardice of his attackers, suspected by police to be members of another splinter group, the New IRA.

As condolences poured in, Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Fein, was swift to give her own response.

She described the shooting of DCI Caldwell as ‘diabolical and unacceptable’, declaring there could be ‘no hiding place’ or ‘sympathy for this’.

Her words made me sick to my stomach.

Not because of the sentiment. But because I’ve been covering Northern Ireland as a journalist for 30 years and the hypocrisy at such times of tragedy from supporters of violent republicans makes me apoplectic.

Michelle O’Neill, Martin McGuinness’s successor as Sinn Fein leader in what they call ‘the North’ – since they refuse to give the entity that pays their salaries its correct name of Northern Ireland – even signed a joint statement from the province’s political leaders.

It read: ‘We speak for the overwhelming majority of people right across our community who are outraged and sickened by this reprehensible and callous attempted murder.’

This is the same woman — like her boss McDonald — who presides regularly over parades and events eulogising the IRA.

It was just the same back in 1998, when we watched the crocodile tears over the Omagh bombing victims — 29 people were killed — from the then-Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and his colleague Martin McGuinness.

The double standards beggar belief. The Sinn Fein line is that all those who committed murder in the name of Irish freedom pre-1998 — mostly the Provisional IRA — are heroes. While those who did so after that time — the IRA splinter groups — are villains.

Yet spin-offs such as the Real IRA and the New IRA were founded by people who had learned their killing trade from the Provos who Sinn Fein applaud.

These Sinn Fein politicians who are so keen to condemn the killing of an off-duty police officer in front of his own son must simply have put out of their mind the dozens of police and defence forces murdered by the Provos in front of their families.

As a child, Arlene Foster, later leader of the DUP, witnessed the blood pouring from her father’s head as he lay on the kitchen floor, although he survived the attempted murder.

And let us remember, too, that for years, the IRA and their political wing have campaigned relentlessly to besmirch the reputation of and foster hatred towards policemen like DCI Caldwell.

The IRA not only murdered more than 270 Northern Irish policemen during the terror euphemistically known as the Troubles, but then demonised them with vicious lies.

This secured a British government reform of an astonishingly brave police force that emasculated its Special Branch and largely drove out in disgust the generation that had saved Northern Ireland from civil war.

And among the ignorant canards wheeled out by republicans is the belief that the sectarian imbalance of the RUC – there were many more Protestants in the force than Catholics – proved its bigotry.

In fact, it was the IRA that intimidated Catholic police out of their communities and made them prime targets.

Yet however brilliant Sinn Fein are at distorting the past and however successful their campaign to stoke hatred against these brave officers, it’s not all plain sailing for them now. There is a growing concern in Ireland that this authoritarian political party is imperilling Irish democracy.

Although threatened with law suits by its members on the flimsiest of ground (I’ve so far seen off four), newspapers and individual journalists have been subjecting the party to investigation and criticism.

No wonder McDonald was keen to downplay her party’s track record of vengeance and hatred.

She tellingly said: ‘there is no rhyme or reason politically speaking [my italics] for a vicious act of thuggery like this.’

She told the Irish state broadcaster RTE that ‘the only way for every community in Ireland now is forward and people have a perfect right to expect that they can move around their communities safely’.

Yet this is to ignore the fact the paramilitaries spawned by the Provos — and occasionally the criminals who rule the loyalist paramilitaries — are still killing, injuring and intimidating servants of the state.

The New IRA was blamed for the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry in 2019 and in November, a member of Saoradh – their political wing – was charged with the attempted murder of two police officers in a bomb attack in Strabane.

In 2009, the New IRA was assessed to have killed two off-duty soldiers outside Massereene Barracks in Antrim.

Yet Sinn Fein are unwilling to connect this heinous violence to their own past. And British and Irish politicians lack the courage to challenge the poisonous narrative that whitewashes republican violence.

The old IRA and the new are no different. In refusing to acknowledge this truth, Sinn Fein allows republican violence and hatred to fester.

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