Page last updated at 14:31 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Dissidents a growing threat to political process

Dissident republicans have demonstrated that they can kill during the past 12 months, murdering two soldiers and a police officer, and the threat they pose is considered to be at the highest level for many years.

Home Affairs Correspondent Vincent Kearney looks at whether they have the capacity to pose a long-term threat to the political process.

Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey
Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were murdered in March

The Real IRA murders of soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey at Masserene army barracks in Antrim in March sent shockwaves through the political and security institutions. The killings in March were utterly unexpected.

For more than a year, Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde had warned that police officers were the desired targets for dissidents.

Just days before the shootings, the BBC revealed that members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment had been deployed in Northern Ireland to help combat the threat against the PSNI.

The targeting of soldiers hadn't been expected.

The choice of target wasn't the only surprise: police were also alarmed by the ruthless efficiency of the gunmen, who calmly opened fire on a group of soldiers and two men delivering pizza to the army base, just yards from the front gate and a watchtower.

The modus operandi suggested the killers were experienced terrorists.

The level of alarm spiralled with the murder of constable Stephen Carroll by the Continuity IRA in Craigavon within 48 hours.

He was the first member of the PSNI to die as a result of terrorism. Suddenly, there was wild speculation that dissidents were preparing to launch a series of attacks, something the police had said they weren't capable of.

The killings resulted in Martin McGuinness's denunciation of the dissidents as "traitors", a visit by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and a near hysterical reaction by some elements of the media who suggested that Northern Ireland could be on the verge of a return to the troubles.

Since then, dissidents haven't killed any other members of the security forces, but it hasn't been for the want of trying.

They've continued targeting potential victims and a number of police officers have been forced to move home because of fears that they were under serious threat.

Dissidents have also improved their skills base.

In spite of the fact that a number of large bombs, like a 600lb roadside device in Forkhill and a 400lb car bomb abandoned at the headquarters of the Policing Board in Belfast, haven't exploded, Army bomb experts have noted an increasing sophistication in the way the devices are put together.

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

The concern is that the bomb makers will soon correct the problems that have frustrated many of their efforts.

There is also clear evidence that former members of the Provisional IRA are increasingly providing assistance to dissident groups. The Independent Monitoring Commission noted this development in its last report in November.

This isn't a great surprise given that the dissident groups were themselves formed by disgruntled members of the Provisional IRA opposed to its decision to declare a ceasefire and decommission its weapons. What worries the police is that these defections are much more recent.

As one security source put it: "When the IRA was fully functional and intact, there were many disillusioned provos who wouldn't step out of line because they feared the consequences.

"Now, with the IRA gone in all but name, there is no obstacle if these people want to occasionally lend a hand to those opposed to the political process."

The number of former Provisional IRA members providing assistance is small, and their involvement appears to be on ad hoc basis, but they could bring considerable expertise to dissident groups, particularly in bomb-making.

The police would clearly be concerned if their numbers and level of involvement grow during the year ahead.

Dissidents are also actively trying to establish themselves as an alternative to the Provisional IRA, and the police, in some republican areas.

The staging of a roadblock by seven armed men in Meigh in south Armagh in August was all about marking out territory and enhancing credibility.

These new recruits come with no terrorist experience and the organisations they are joining don't appear to have a strategic long-term aim

The Real and Continuity IRA have also engaged in dozens of assaults, shooting or severely beating people they accuse of a range of anti-social behaviour, in the same way as the Provisional IRA did throughout the Troubles.

Again, this is an attempt to enhance their credibility and support by exploiting community fears.

Dissidents have also disrupted a number of meetings of district policing partnerships, in a clear attempt to fan republican concerns about the PSNI, and to make life as difficult as possible for Sinn Fein.

However, despite their increasing activities, there is no evidence of a corresponding increase in public support. Indeed, dissidents are believed to have been surprised by the backlash within the nationalist community when Stephen Carroll was murdered.

While rioters took to the streets of Lurgan when leading republican Colin Duffy was arrested and charged with the murders of the two soldiers in Antrim, the numbers were well down on the days when the Provisional IRA was pulling the strings.

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

So was the age profile: most of those taking part were in their early teenage years.

There is evidence that the various dissident groups, which operate independently rather than as centralised, highly structured organisations, are attracting disaffected young republicans.

The credit crunch has come at a bad time for the political process as unemployed, disillusioned and bored young men in working class areas are likely to be more receptive to those promoting the overthrow of the state they blame for their ills.

But these new recruits come with no terrorist experience and the organisations they are joining don't appear to have a strategic long-term aim.

They must realise that they can't hope to succeed where the Provisional IRA failed by forcing the British government to leave Northern Ireland.

The apparent interception and arrest of Real IRA members planning to kill a police officer in the county Fermanagh village of Garrison in November, a police operation that was supported by members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, suggests that the security services have high grade intelligence about their activities.

There is no evidence that dissidents are capable of mounting a sustained campaign of violence.

"This is not a new IRA" is the assessment of a senior police officer familiar with the activities and capabilities of dissident republicans.

He acknowledges their ability to kill and an increasing technical proficiency, but is dismissive of any suggestion that they could evolve into a well resourced and supported terrorist organisation capable of posing a long-term threat.

Without widespread support within the republican and nationalist communities, dissidents simply won't be able to operate on a long-term basis

The police, government and many local politicians say devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont is the best way to tackle the dissident threat.

The view is that this will undermine dissidents, who are driven by a desire to block devolution because they believe that will in turn lead to the collapse of the assembly.

Secretary of State Shaun Woodward has said he believes devolution would create a climate of co-operation between the DUP and Sinn Fein and build community momentum against the dissidents.

Without widespread support within the republican and nationalist communities, dissidents simply won't be able to operate on a long-term basis.

But if their aim is simply to destabilise the political process and undermine Sinn Fein, they don't have to mount a sustained campaign of violence.

All they have to do is to occasionally launch a successful attack, whether that's the murder of a police officer or soldier, or a large-scale bombing.

The next year will be vital. If policing powers are devolved, Sinn Fein will find itself partly in charge of the police officers being targeted by republican dissidents.

Sinn Fein will hope that it can then isolate the dissidents by establishing more widespread acceptance of the police in republican and nationalist communities. If it fails to do so, the dissident threat could reach new levels.



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