When 1,000 Catholics in the Short Strand area of East Belfast march against the IRA, when "IRA scum out" is painted on walls by local people, things have begun to change in Northern Ireland.
The Short Strand is a Catholic enclave surrounded by a Protestant population from which it is separated by a high metal fence. There can be few places in Northern Ireland in which the Catholics feel as vulnerable and under threat as in the Short Strand.
It is, therefore, an area in which the IRA’s role as protector of Catholics has had a serous and urgent meaning.
Yet, the stabbing of Robert McCartney in a bar room brawl by men believed by local people to be members of the IRA has unleashed a storm of ill-feeling against the organisation, ill-feeling that must have been building for a long time.
The Good Friday Agreement tacitly accepted that paramilitary rule in the ghettoes would continue. Punishment beatings and non-fatal punishment shootings were not "held against" the IRA or deemed to be a breach of the ceasefire.
IRA rule in the Catholic ghettoes depends on a mixture of voluntary consent and forced submission.
Consent was rooted in long-time Catholic alienation from the British-ruled state and its police and courts and in the belief that the IRA offered them needed protection. But IRA rule, enforced by severe physical penalties, and the threat of being forced to get out of the areas on pain of death, is heavy handed. Prolonged peace cannot but erode the level of popular consent for this system by eroding the feeling that it is, all in all, a necessary lesser evil.
The old much-hated Royal Ulster Constabulary has been replaced by the "Police Service of Northern Ireland", which is designed to be a joint Catholic-Protestant police force, in which the Protestant sectarian bias of the RUC will be impossible. The second Nationalist Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, supports the PNSI. Sinn Fein does not; but it has let it be known that in certain conditions it might. All this, by acting to undermine the sense in the Catholic people that IRA rule is necessary, must change, at first imperceptibly, the balance between consent and coercion to IRA rule in the Catholic areas. Indefinite peace must, even with continuing sectarian tensions, make the brutal rule of the IRA in the Catholic neighbourhoods seem less and less necessary.
The IRA has a famously high degree of discipline and dedication. Killing people in a pub brawl and using the authority of the Republican movement to protect the killers indicates that that discipline too is eroding. That a dimension of plain gangsterism and corrupt gang rule exists side by side with the political dimension of the IRA-Sinn Fein. That is what the Catholic demonstrators in the Short Strand see and resent. We don’t know how widespread this phenomenon is.
Short Strand may be a straw in the wind. It comes at a time when IRA-Sinn Fein is experiencing a sustained political onslaught from London and Dublin triggered by the £26 million robbery in Belfast, which the police in Dublin and Belfast say was the work of the IRA. They aimed to force the IRA to disarm and disband.
Normally that could be expected to inhibit a Catholic demonstration against the IRA. The interesting thing is that in fact, it may have encouraged it.