The threats to the Sinn Fein leadership, according to Hugh Orde, are ‘very real‘.
My front teeth, for example, are real. When I mean real, I mean authentic. They are not false teeth. But they are also real in a more concrete sense, one which has nothing to do with the description humans might assign to them. If was to sink my teeth into a person’s leg, they would feel the pain. They are not imaginary teeth. Yet they are not very real either. Just real.
Let us consider the differences between real threats and real teeth. Unlike false teeth, real teeth cannot be created. Or rather, they cannot be created without creating an attached human.
Real threats, however, can be created at will. If anyone objects to this observation, I will kick their head in. That is an example of a real threat. It might be an empty threat, in that the statement of intent will not be followed with action, but the threat, like a set of buck teeth, is out there. And, provided I have at least one useful leg, it will continue to exist.
The difficulty is that as soon as I make the threat, it becomes a historical threat, and those worried about having their head kicked in will have to assess whether or not the circumstances in which the threat was made still apply when they decide to object to my observation.
If, 30 years down the line I am writing about the two legs I lost in a freak water-skiing accident on the Grand Canal, this should be enough for someone to realise that the whilst the threat is still real, its potential for execution is practically zero (artificial limbs and third legs notwithstanding). One would be tempted to describe such a threat as ‘idle’, although idle implies that the threat could become ‘active’ at some later stage. One way of getting round this is to say that the initial threat no longer exists.
Of course, my threat is only one type of threat. A threat need not be declared for someone else to recognise its existence. If I am twitching angrily and muttering obscenities on the DART, glaring at the nun opposite and donning a knuckleduster, the nun might recognise the existence of a threat. This threat is also real; it is also out there, although, unlike a declared threat, it can disappear immediately, brought about by my descent from the train at the next stop, or by the nun issuing a compelling counter-threat, like brandishing an M-16.
The reality of declared and undeclared threats alike, once out there, has nothing to do with the reality of buck teeth. Buck teeth are just there, and to continue to exist, they don’t depend all that much on external factors, at least not in what is normally described as ‘in the short term’, orthodontic appointments and the like notwithstanding. The reality of a threat, then, is far more provisional.
Given the provisional and often elusive nature of threats, there may be a certain temptation to resort to peculiar language to copper-fasten their reality. There are plenty of good reasons for doing so. The ticking bomb does not simply stop ticking when out of earshot. It is likely that the bomb will still go off. If I were to say that there is a ‘very real’ threat to our safety from a bomb, even though my friends cannot hear the bomb ticking as I have done seconds earlier, I am doing so in an effort to intensify the seriousness of the situation in the minds of my friends. I am not doing so to emphasise the reality of the threat. There is no doubt about that.
But what of ‘very real’ threats as identified by a top copper? Well, serious threats are usually a matter for the police. It is their job to identify threats, and we can be sure that they have a defined method for classifying them. They might do so on one or more sliding scales, for instance, according to the ‘gravity’, ‘seriousness’, imminence’, or other such measures. A rather inappropriate measure, at least from an operational perspective, would be ‘reality’, that is, the extent to which a threat is real, not least because the police would end up with a large database containing partially and wholly imaginary threats.
So, given Hugh Orde’s probable expertise in operational matters, why would he choose to describe threats to Sinn Fein leaders as ‘very real’? I think there is a real chance, as opposed to an imaginary one, that this is the sort of thing Sinn Fein call ‘political policing’.