Recent news from North of the border is worrying. Every day seems to bring a fresh attempted bombing, while last night witnessed a suspected arson attack on an Orange Lodge in Co. Tyrone. Disturbingly, we seem to be witnessing a slide back into violence, a slide that is being led entirely by dissident republicans.
While the thugs themselves would probably claim that their escalating campaign is part of a just crusade against British occupation, most people would dismiss their violence as nothing more than the activities of slow-witted bigots. The recent case where an independent republican councillor in Kilkeel in Co. Down, Martin Connolly, refused to condemn an attempted attack on his niece (a PSNI officer) and her baby daughter, would seem to support such a rash generalisation. After all, nothing says illogical hatred like tacitly supporting attacks on your relatives for spurious political reasons.
However, what seems to be regularly overlooked is how this violence is linked to the economic crisis gripping both North and South, and in particular, the after effects of the collapse of the property market. At the height of the boom, 1 in 4 men in the Republic were employed in building or building-related activities; unsurprisingly, these workers now make up a significant chunk of Ireland's 466,000 unemployed. So, we have a sector which employed a disproportionate number of young men, many of whom were unskilled or early school-leavers, who became used to inflated wages (and the self-esteem that comes with working) and now have nothing to do, and are getting by on social welfare.
Inevitably, a tiny fraction of those who now find themselves at a loose end are drawn to political violence, if only because it gives them a purpose, a code, a set of beliefs that they can hold onto and say "This is who I am, I matter". Witness the reluctance of Cllr. Connolly above to codemn the attack on his niece; condemnation would undermine one of the primary planks of his (warped) set of of beliefs. Throw in the ability to blame our economic woes on the Brits, and the "puppet" Free State government in Dublin, and you have the sort of heady cocktail that produced such lovable movements as the Nazis and the Falange.
If things are bad now, just wait and see what happens if David Cameron decides to trim public spending in the UK further, and focusses on Northern Ireland as a prime place to cut into the fat.
We can only hope that the vast majority of Northerners, both Catholic and Protestant, can face down the unthinking bloodlust of these so-called "republicans", and build the sort of community that they deserve after so many years of suffering.