Page last updated at 17:34 GMT, Thursday, 11 November 2010

Threat from young NI militants uniting with veterans

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By Liz MacKean
BBC Newsnight

Militant Irish republicans in Northern Ireland are growing in number and will not be negotiated with, according to a new study seen exclusively by Newsnight.

The report for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King's College, which will be published on Friday, also argues that security forces have been caught off guard by the recent surge in paramilitary activity.

Since the beginning of this year, police data shows there have been 110 terror incidents, including multiple attacks on the police themselves.

It is the coming together of these two generations, the foot soldiers if you like - the angry young men with the seasoned 40-somethings who have a degree of expertise and know-how - that makes this current time particularly dangerous
ICSR report author, Martyn Frampton

They include a car bombing of the barracks in Belfast that house MI5, which is in charge of intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland.

The report's author, Martyn Frampton, told Newsnight that Northern Ireland is at a crucial juncture because of the coming together of two distinct generations of dissident republicans.

Veterans disillusioned by the direction the republican movement has taken, who no longer believe the Sinn Fein political path has been sufficiently beneficial, are joining forces with disaffected teenagers from Northern Ireland's poorest areas.

"It is the coming together of these two generations, the foot soldiers if you like - the angry young men with the seasoned 40-somethings who have a degree of expertise and know-how - that makes this current time particularly dangerous," he says.

Groups 'bigger than before'

One ex-paramilitary, who still supports the peace process, backed this view when he spoke to Newsnight anonymously, saying that these groups were currently "a lot bigger" than the IRA in 1969-1971:

PSNI former deputy: 'There will always be political violence in NI'

"These aren't just young men feeling their way and recommencing the struggle, like we had to do in 1969. They can rely on a breadth of experience, experienced people coming in from PIRA [Provisional IRA], from INLA [Irish National Liberation Army] and from various existing organisations that have existed post ceasefire."

There are three main republican groups - the Real IRA which carried out the Omagh bombing and last year murdered two off duty soldiers in Northern Ireland, the Continuity IRA which remains active and dangerous, and the group judged to be the most serious threat, Oglaigh na hEireann, or Volunteers of Ireland.

The latest security assessment of the militant groups acknowledges that former members of the IRA are joining their ranks.

Sinn Fein support

And Sinn Fein's iron grip on nationalist areas seems to be waning.

Riot police in Ardoyne
This summer saw riots in the nationalist Ardoyne area of Belfast

This summer saw serious rioting in the nationalist Ardoyne area of Belfast in protest at Protestant marches, rioting which even Sinn Fein stalwarts Gerry Kelly and Bobby Storey seemed powerless to end.

Martin Og Meehan, a former IRA prisoner, is one who has turned his back on Sinn Fein.

For him it was Sinn Fein's decision three years ago to support the police in Northern Ireland which proved the last straw, a difficult decision made all the more significant given that his father, also called Martin, had been one of the most famous IRA men of The Troubles and had stuck with the Sinn Fein leadership throughout the peace process.

'Promises not met'

Martin Og Meehan, who spent three years in the adjoining prison cell to his father, says he does not support the continuing violence, but it is understandable:

"I would acknowledge and accept Sinn Fein still has a mandate and that mandate should be respected.

The overall impression of the handlers was that MI5 weren't up to it... there is a reluctance among people to go to Northern Ireland, spend time there, put the hours in on the ground
Former army intelligence officer who helped prepare MI5 to takeover NI intelligence gathering

"Their support has dropped considerably because of a lack of movement towards the island of equals that they espouse and the lack of economic freedom within these areas. There were promises made and those promises haven't been delivered on."

The disaffection with Sinn Fein, which is sharing power in Northern Ireland with the unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is expected to grow as cuts in public spending are felt on the ground in nationalist areas.

And the signs are that the militant groups are not interested in negotiating as Sinn Fein had done before them.

The ICRS report entitled The Return of the Militants, suggests the militant groups have completely turned their backs on the political process: "In their view, there can be no negotiations until the British agree to leave Ireland," the report says.

Police skills gap

The former paramilitary who spoke to Newsnight anonymously agreed, saying: "Negotiating has brought us to the point that two men (Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) sold the republican struggle out… It'll be 50 or 60 years before any republicans negotiate with a British government face to face."

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly: 'There is a political way forward to a united Ireland'

Martyn Frampton argues in his report that the only way violent republicanism can be defeated is through good policing and intelligence.

But he warns that "the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has struggled to respond to the challenge posed by dissident republicans. Senior officers have admitted the existence of a skills-gap".

Newsnight spoke to a former army intelligence officer, who helped prepare MI5 to takeover intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland, who believes the terrorists were underestimated and the security services not up to the job.

Even allowing for inter-agency rivalry, his impressions are damning:

"The overall impression of the handlers was that MI5 weren't up to it... there is a reluctance among people to go to Northern Ireland, spend time there, put the hours in on the ground," he said.

"Maybe we became complacent. We thought 'don't worry the dissident republicans are well infiltrated.' That was the general feeling. We weren't as all over it as we thought we were."

The police have had their successes - this week raids on homes in and around Belfast saw a number of arrests and ammunition seized.

But the new report makes clear the size of the task they are facing and warns Irish republican terror will be around for some time to come.

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