Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

Fears for Army killings fall-out

Mark Simpson
Ireland correspondent, BBC News

Brigadier Norton with flowers
Community support shown for the two soldiers is a positive sign
The biggest danger facing Northern Ireland at the moment is a political and security knock-on effect.

The fear is that the killing of two soldiers by the so-called Real IRA could lead to a political chain reaction which sees the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont.

At this stage, that seems highly unlikely. The political process appears to be robust enough to withstand the pressure.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's flying visit to Stormont and his meeting with the party leaders helped to unify the politicians, and it looks like the tensions between Sinn Fein and the unionists may ease in the coming days.

What is less easy to predict is the security fall-out.

The danger is that one deadly attack could lead to another. Rather than lying low after murdering soldiers in Antrim, the dissidents could decide to strike again, to prove that the Army base attack was not just a one-off.

That is the nightmare scenario. The police and security services are trying to make sure it does not happen.

Dependent on crime

So are dissident republicans capable of sustaining a full campaign like the Provisional IRA?

The police assessment, at this stage, is "no".

In an interview in the Belfast Telegraph last month, Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris gave an insight into the make-up of the dissidents.

Real IRA graffiti
The Real IRA is not the only republican dissident group involved in crime
He said: "They lack public support, they lack finance, they lack personnel and they lack munitions and equipment.

"What they can do is sporadic murder, sporadic bombing attacks and, in their terms, be successful in that.

"One of the truths about them is that they depend a lot on finance - and their finance is around crime.

"A lot of it would be around oil fraud, cigarette fraudů but also now we see crimes of violence such as planning for tiger kidnaps."

The Real IRA is not the only republican dissident group involved in violence and crime. It is one of a number of different factions and there is no evidence that they have come together with a central command structure.

Ruthless gunmen

They seem disinterested in electoral politics. They do not have a political wing which contests elections, and evidently prefer killing to voting.

What they do have in common with the Provisional IRA of the 1970s and 1980s is ruthless gunmen, prepared to be involved in mass murder.

The danger is that people will naturally become more suspicious of others
One of the most chilling aspects of the Antrim shootings was the fact that the gunmen simply shot on sight. The two pizza delivery men were seen as legitimate targets in their eyes, merely because they were supplying take-away food to young squaddies.

It harks back to the bad old days of the Troubles when anyone who worked directly or indirectly for the police or Army was targeted. This led to an air of caution in all aspects of life.

Children were taught at an early age not to tell anyone what their mother or father did for a living.

Anyone with any connection to the security forces looked under their car every morning before going to work, in case a booby-trap device had been planted overnight.

It is an old routine which may now be revived by many workers in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Antrim attack.

The danger is that people will naturally become more suspicious of others, barriers will be raised rather than broken, and society will become less trusting.

It is another potentially damaging domino effect.

The coming together of Protestants and Catholics on Sunday in Antrim town centre was a powerful image of cross-community solidarity. The hope is that it was not just a one-off.



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