Page last updated at 15:54 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Dissidents can't turn clock back

Mark Simpson
By Mark Simpson
BBC News Ireland correspondent

Dissident republicans have been blamed for a number of recent attacks
Dissident republicans left a bomb under a car in Belfast last month

The drift of members from the Provisional IRA to the ranks of the dissident groups will cause the most alarm for politicians reading the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission.

The nightmare scenario for the peace process is that just as one IRA disappears, another one emerges with the same level of bomb-making capability and weapons experience.

It would be like turning the clock back in Northern Ireland to the dark old days of the 1970s and 1980s.

However, it is clear from the report that this is not going to happen.

As things stand, the drift of members is on a very small scale.

The brutal truth is that if a large number of IRA bombers and gunmen had joined the Continuity IRA and Real IRA in recent months, there would be bloody evidence of this around Northern Ireland by now.

Horrific though they were, there have only been two fatal attacks in Northern Ireland this year, leading to the loss of three lives.

In the 1989, the IRA killed 53 people. That amounts to a death every week.

Experience

The dissidents, in spite of their lethal intent, pose a much reduced threat.

Mind you, that does not mean that the police and the intelligence services will be complacent.

The growth of the dissidents is also being watched closely by Sinn Fein and those who were part of the IRA during its 30-year campaign.

Forensic officers at murder scene
The shooting of a policeman in Craigavon was one of three recent dissident killings

Tommy McKearney, a former IRA life-sentence prisoner, says the threat posed by the Real IRA and Continuity IRA is relatively low-level.

"There is no widespread campaign of insurrection," he says.

"You would have to say these groups are very short of practical experience."

'Freelancers'

They also do not have the same coherence, weaponry and cell structure which the Provisional IRA put in place.

Indeed, it seems that rather than joining the dissident groups, some former IRA members are simply helping them on an adhoc basis. In other words, they are acting as 'freelancers', lending their terror skills on demand.

In many ways, it is no surprise. The very existence of the Real IRA is as a result of a split with the Provisional IRA in 1997.

There was always likely to be a leakage of more people, at some stage.

However, most of the new recruits are young men who have never previously been involved in violence. Some of them are too young to remember what Northern Ireland was like before the peace process.

They may not have the ability to make bombs or fire guns - but they are willing to learn.

The challenge facing the police and the intelligence services is to stop this happening.

According to the Independent Monitoring Commission, the politicians at Stormont can help too, by resolving their differences over the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster.

The thinking is that a better political atmosphere improves the security situation.

Given the current deadlock at Stormont, there is no immediate prospect of any improvement.



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