Page last updated at 14:51 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

Will dissident threat diminish?

roadside bomb
A roadside bomb is found in County Fermanagh in October
The threat from republican dissidents was at its highest for many years during the past 12 months.

At the same time, the government said it would give loyalists a final chance to decommission their weapons. Our Home Affairs Correspondent Vincent Kearney looks back at the security situation in 2008.

The police and government were consistent in their public utterances about dissident republicans during 2008.

Repeatedly, we were told, they were "high on intent, but low on capability", had little public support, were engaged in widespread criminality and operating as independent factions with no central leadership or strategy.

'Clear intent'

At the same time we were told that they posed a growing threat and were determined to kill police officers.

The PSNI had a number of lucky escapes during the past year, with lives being saved due to good fortune on the part of a number of officers, and a lack of technical ability on the part of the terrorists.

But while dissidents remain relatively small in number and do lack any kind of widespread support, there is a growing concern.

Intelligence suggests they have been much more active in recent months in targeting potential victims and planning attacks.

They haven't succeeded, but the intent is clearly there.

They've also experimented with a variety of weapons, from improvised rocket-propelled grenades to under car booby traps and large fertiliser-based bombs.

And they've tested a number of different ways of triggering bombs in an attempt to increase the likelihood of detonation.

Dissidents have also been recruiting new members, many of whom were in primary school when the IRA declared its ceasefire, and have no memory of the Troubles.

After all the bluster and warnings, the government changed its position
The advantage for the security forces is that these individuals are inexperienced and amateurish; the disadvantage is that in terrorist terms they are 'lilly whites' with no track record, and that makes them much harder to detect and monitor their behaviour.

When MI5 opened its huge new offices in Holywood, the view was that 'the Irish problem' had been resolved and the intention was that the spooks based their would devote the majority of their time to tackling the threat from al-Qaeda and other international groups.

That is the case, but the security service deploy around 15% of their resources to dealing with domestic terrorism, and dissident republicans are the main focus of their attentions.

"There is a huge amount of activity going on behind the scenes to combat these groups," said one well-placed security source.

"There have been a number of reported attacks, but there is a lot of other activity going on that is not known publicly and that is causing a lot of concern."

Security sources estimate that dissident groups have around 80-100 active members, with around 250-300 others willing to lend support and some assistance, while not wanting to become active terrorists.

There are small but relatively strong elements in Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and north Armagh.

Attack scene
Dissidents tried to bomb Fermanagh police on foot patrol in August
Despite all their intent and activity, however, the dissidents have not been able to mount a successful attack against the police, and even if they eventually do, there is no evidence to suggest that they are capable of mounting a sustained campaign of violence.

The police and security services will hope that the level of threat will diminish during the coming year.

While the increasing activity of republican dissidents has been causing concern, the government has been frustrated by a lack of activity from loyalist paramilitary groups when it comes to decommissioning their weapons.

Shaun Woodward, the NI Secretary of State, warned last May that the "decommissioning train" was about to leave the station.

Journalists were told that it was highly unlikely that the legislation that enables the international decommissioning body to function would be renewed again in February.

But after all the bluster and warnings, the government changed its position and has started the process to renew the legislation, which will give the loyalist groups another 12 months to finally deal with the issue of their weapons, 14 years after they declared that their war was over.

The UDA and UVF have both engaged with General John de Chastelain and his decommissioning body, but as yet there is no evidence that weapons are going to be put beyond use.

Shaun Woodward will hope that at least one of the loyalist groups demonstrates that he was right.

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