MLAs meet in sombre mood

MLAs returned from their half-term break in a sombre mood, discussing the shocking motorway murder of prison officer David Black.

As on previous occasions when dissidents have tried to make their mark on the political process, the overriding theme was that such killings serve only to strengthen the process they are designed to destroy.

Stormont, of course, has no MLAs who support the dissident cause, testimony in itself to the way in which the violent republican factions pose a paramilitary but not an electoral threat.

So the vast majority of contributions concurred with the First Minister Peter Robinson who described Mr Black's ambush as "utterly futile" and the former education minister Caitriona Ruane who called the drive-by shooting "pointless".

However, as the tributes to Mr Black and condemnation of his killers continued, divisions emerged.

TUV leader Jim Allister questioned the first minister's description of the shooting as "utterly futile".

Claiming the M1 ambush had been a "dastardly IRA murder" prepared on a "well-set Provo template", Mr Allister argued that the current Stormont structures were part of a reward or "buy-off for terrorism" from which today's dissident gunmen took inspiration.

Quoting the First Minister again, Mr Allister said the "odious hate-filled deviants" who butchered Mr Black were no better and no worse than the "odious hate-filled deviants" of the Provisional IRA.

This prompted a swift response from DUP Justice Chair Paul Givan who told MLAs that Mr Black's widow Yvonne had herself called her husband's murder "futile".

UKIP's David McNarry also challenged Mr Allister's comments, claiming that violence had not worked for anyone else in the past and would not work in the future.

Mr Allister cut an apparently isolated figure within the chamber.

But later in the day there came confirmation that Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was not welcome at Mr Black's funeral in Cookstown: a further indication, perhaps, that many unionists still find it hard to draw a distinction between the old Provisionals and the current dissidents.

Elsewhere at Stormont, there were more signs of division on other law and order issues. Speaking in the Great Hall, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly called for the release of Padraic Wilson claiming his arrest was the result of "political policing".

But the SDLP's Alex Attwood hit back, accusing republicans of attempting, themselves, to bring political pressure on those charged with administering the legal process.

Stormont's final debate again dealt with violence past and present, with the DUP criticising both nationalist parties by "expressing revulsion at those who side with would-be murderers" rather than their councillor Sammy Brush.

In June 1981, Mr Brush, a part-time UDR soldier, survived a Provisional IRA ambush carried out whilst Mr Brush was making a postal delivery.

In April 2011, Gerry McGeough was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for Mr Brush's attempted murder, although that sentence is subject to the two-year early release scheme under the Good Friday Agreement.

Last month, Sinn Fein and the SDLP backed a motion on Dungannon council - the very body on which Councillor Brush sits - calling for Mr McGeough's immediate release. So it was inevitable that Monday's debate would once again polarise the Stormont chamber.

Up in the visitors' gallery, Councillor Brush looked down at the MLAs discussing his case.

Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin talked about previous proposed agreements on "on the runs" and the need to deal with the hurt on all sides after a conflict which he said had "effectively been over for approaching 20 years".

By his presence, Sammy Brush illustrated the painful reality of the legacy of the Troubles.

By his absence, David Black questioned the extent to which the conflict can be deemed to be over.