These criminals can't hold the peace process hostage
I was in Belfast on Friday night speaking to politicians and senior security figures, including the chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, about the lessons to be learned from the peace process for conflicts elsewhere in the world. I concluded by asking rhetorically whether I was premature in declaring "the Troubles" over. I said I prayed the dissident Republican terrorists would not succeed in killing a member of the security forces. If they did it would be a tragedy, but it would be of "no political significance" as long as we did not react in the wrong way.
I had no idea that the tragedy I foresaw would unfold so soon, on the very day I left the province. And I am enormously sad for the families and friends of the men killed and injured. It is doubly shocking because it was so unexpected, when violence appeared to be over. But I stand by what I said on Friday: the heartless murders have no political significance and do not mark the "rebirth of the Troubles", as some newspaper headlines would have it. My worry remains, however, that our reaction might make the deaths a turning point they do not need to be.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were determined to carry the Republican movement into peace as intact as possible. They moved slowly to avoid the traditional split and lost very few volunteers along the way. Unusually, the British government agreed with this approach.
Instead of trying to encourage divisions, as in the past, we hoped they would carry the movement with them because we wanted to make peace once, not many times with many different groups. And we wanted to ensure that a capable and credible terrorist movement was not left behind. The establishment of a new executive by the DUP and Sinn Féin in May 2007 delivered that outcome.
The splinter movements left behind, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, have no political significance and no political mandate. They speak for no one and for no part of the community. Their murders are just that - murders, and not political acts. There is no groundswell of support behind them and any of the things they might demand can be argued for politically in Northern Ireland without hindrance. There is no justification whatsoever for the use of physical violence.
The only thing that could change the emptiness of these acts is the way in which we react. What turned the Easter Rising in 1916 into a mass movement for independence in Ireland was the reaction of the British government. The bloody way in which it was suppressed, the mass imprisonment of innocent people and the imposition of conscription helped propel the Irish nation into opposition and spelled the end for constitutional nationalism. It is always the repression of terrorists that leads to sympathy and support for them. And terrorists know that provocation will work. Terrorist atrocity is followed by reprisal, and then by counter-reprisal, which leads to full-scale conflict. That will not happen this time. These murders will be dealt with by the security forces and by the entire population of Northern Ireland as a crime, not a political act.
The other way in which we risk turning this into more than a personal tragedy is by trying to make more of it than it is. Again that is what the terrorists crave: attention. If the British media make the splinter groups sound significant it will flatter them. They will feel that they are indeed important. So these events should be seen in context, and not inflated. The leaders of Sinn Féin will have a difficult task. They have to keep the Republican movement unified. They must condemn the murders as they have done, and they must call for justice, but we should not make their task more difficult by jumping up and down on their historic sensibilities. This is a time for people to pull together, rather than trying to reintroduce old divisions.
In the Middle East we have seen how peace processes can be held hostage by dissident terrorists. Every time a suicide bomber gets through into Jerusalem, the peace process there collapses again. In Northern Ireland an important decision was taken by the people after the Omagh bomb in August 1998. That atrocity, following the Good Friday agreement and the referendum by just a few months, could have killed the peace process and restarted the Troubles. But the majority in Northern Ireland saw it clearly as an act by dissidents who wanted to do nothing other than disrupt the search for peace, and they were not going to give them the satisfaction of meeting their wish. They decided spontaneously that the search for peace should go on. They would not let it be held hostage by a tiny minority. They were right then. And they will be right again.
• was chief of staff to Tony Blair 1997-2007. His book Great Hatred, Little Room, about the Northern Ireland Peace Process, is published in paperback next month