Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Files reveal growing NI terror threat

Watch Liz MacKean's film in full

By Liz MacKean
BBC Newsnight

A confidential file of terror incidents reveals that the police in Northern Ireland are facing their greatest threat for a decade.

Last March, one officer was murdered by republican paramilitaries. Since then there have been 11 attempts to kill other PSNI officers.

It's a horrible way to have to live, you don't sleep when you should be sleeping, you find yourself exhausted during the day, you are just sick with worry
PSNI officer forced to relocate after death threats

And in the last two years, 38 police and their families have had to be re-housed and more than 50 have had to improve home security.

I spoke to one police officer, on condition of anonymity, who was forced to move house this year under threat of death from the dissidents.

Now living in a different town, he told me what the last six months have been like:

"It's a horrible way to have to live, you don't sleep when you should be sleeping, you find yourself exhausted during the day, you are just sick with worry, you become overprotective of what you do have, overprotective of yourself, your children, your wife."

Police at scene of suspected bomb in Belfast
There have been 750 bomb alerts in the last two years

His wife told me their lives will never be the same again:

"It's really only looking back that you sort of think about the situation, about how horrible it is to leave everything that you had, all the relationships that you had, the town that you grew up in, you lived your whole life in.

"And realising you're never going to be able to go back again and there'll be people you'll never be able to see again."

The officer, a Catholic, is supposed to be part of a new era of policing in Northern Ireland.

Gone are the armoured patrols of the recent past, the emphasis is on working in the community.

But some officers are questioning whether this is feasible given the current security threat.

In the period of the last two years, there have been 750 bomb alerts. The Army says 420 of these involved viable devices.

N Ireland terror focus 'will switch' to other parts of UK

Most of retired chief superintendent Norman Baxter's policing career took place during the Troubles, in which 300 officers lost their lives.

He led the second investigation of the Omagh bomb, carried out by the Real IRA, and now uses his expertise as a security consultant.

"The current levels are clearly casting a shadow on society, in particular in those areas where attacks have happened. It's casting a shadow on police officers both on and off duty, and immersing Northern Ireland into an era which should be relegated to the past," he told me.

In the north-western city of Londonderry, one of the centres of dissident activity, I met Gary Donnelly.

He is a member of the republican splinter group 32 Counties Sovereignty Movement.

Mr Donnelly was a member of Sinn Fein, but left the party over its support for the peace process.

He represents a pocket of hardliners who believe that armed struggle is still justified. I asked him about targeting police officers, to which he responded:

"It would be perfectly legitimate to target anyone who is promoting British rule in Ireland."

NI hardliner on targeting 'those promoting British rule'

But when I asked him about targeting their families, after a long pause, he described that as a "thorny issue".

The body which monitors paramilitary activity for the governments in London and Dublin, the Independent Monitoring Commission, is due to report next week, and I understand it will find the recent increase in terrorist activity "deeply disturbing".

It last reported in the wake of the murders of two soldiers and a police officer in March this year.

Since then there has been what security sources call "constant background activity" in an attempt to "undermine the peace process and the move to normality and community policing."

The Police Federation, which represents 7,000 PSNI officers is stressing the importance of getting the security situation under control.

I spoke to its chairman Terry Spence who had a warning for other parts of the UK:

"I don't think there's any doubt that they will change their focus of attention from Northern Ireland at some stage to mainland UK, and I'm sure the government are only too well aware of that.

Soldier at Massereene barracks
In March this year two British soldiers were killed at Massareene barracks

"Albeit the government seems to be publically at this stage in denial that the seriousness of the situation and the gravity of the situation is as bad as it is."

Politicians from all parties argue that the dissidents do not have the support of their communities, limiting their effectiveness.

They are continuing moves towards the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland which they say will send out a powerful signal of progress and normality.

But while the peace process has delivered strong progress, the increasing boldness of republican diehards means the situation is anything but normal.


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