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Page last updated at 18:33 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 19:33 UK
The Gunmen Who Never Went Away

Darragh MacKintyre
Darragh MacKintyre analyses the nature of the republican threat

If you live in the rest of the United Kingdom, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the last 10 years brought only peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland, with former enemies forgetting their differences and working together.

And largely you would have been right.

But when two soldiers and a policeman were murdered three weeks ago it highlighted that for some people the war never ended and that for their victims the violence never stopped.

Police say the number of republican dissidents trying to wreck the Northern Ireland peace process is small, just about 300.

But while the rest of the world has moved on, this dangerous minority do not seem to have got the message.

Main target

In The Gunmen Who Never Went Away, Panorama offers the most detailed analysis yet of the threat they pose in a programme based on 10 years of investigating the breakaway republican movements, their aims, roots and tactics.

In the programme, reporter Darragh MacIntyre travels to Wexford, a quiet port in the south east of Ireland.

Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey
Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were killed earlier this month

The town is home to an annual ceremony commemorating the 1923 execution of three IRA men, who resisted the partition of Ireland more than 80 years ago.

For many of those in attendance, including two men who have recently been serving jail time for having been caught with guns at a weapons training camp, that resistance remains relevant today.

"Last weekend we heard shots that echoed around the... occupied six counties, echoed around the whole country. And it echoed around the world. And they're echoing in the ears of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams at the moment," the crowd attending the event are told in a speech.

Lifelong republican

It is Martin McGuinness, a former IRA leader himself, who angers them most.

He has left his violent past behind and is now part of the political establishment he used to revile.

Stephen Carroll
Stephen Paul Carroll was killed just 48 hours after the two soldiers

After the recent killings he stood shoulder to shoulder with Northern Ireland's Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde and made history when he called those who had carried out the attacks "traitors".

The men and women at the Wexford rally are from Republican Sinn Fein, the political cheerleaders of the Continuity IRA - the group which killed Catholic police officer Stephen Carroll three weeks ago in Craigavon, south of Belfast.

Darragh meets Ruairi O'Bradaigh, a former IRA chief of staff and lifelong republican.

He led a split from Sinn Fein in 1986, believing the younger leadership were getting ready to sell out, and formed Republican Sinn Fein.

'Ultimate responsibility'

When asked by our reporter what he would say to Kate Carroll, the widow of Stephen Carroll who was the first Northern Ireland police officer to be murdered in Northern Ireland since 1998, Mr O'Bradaigh says:

"All loss of life is regretted, and in this case of course the same thing, but that ultimately the British government is responsible in that it recruited that constable into its forces and put him in harm's way."

John Grieve
John Grieve says the militants want to force a return to old security levels

Soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were hours away from leaving for Afghanistan when they were gunned down outside Massereene Army barracks, north of Belfast, by the other main dissident group the Real IRA.

They were boys, aged just nine and 11, when the last soldier was shot dead here in 1997.

So how exactly how do the killers think the deaths will advance their ultimate goal of a united Ireland?

Darragh speaks to John Grieve, former head of the anti-terrorist squad in London, who monitors Irish paramilitaries for the Westminster and Dublin governments.

He says the dissidents want to undermine the peace process by bringing about a return to the days of military presence, helicopters, and watchtowers.

"It would make people begin to feel that they are being oppressed again, opposed to being policed in a normal way which is what the PSNI have achieved," he says.

Omagh atrocity

The Real IRA was formed in 1997 by a small group of provisional IRA members who opposed the peace process and wanted to carry on the war until the British left Ireland.

The Real IRA with assistance from the Continuity IRA carried out the Omagh bombing in 1998, killing 29 people, including a woman who was pregnant with twins.

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern says Northern Ireland will not go back to the violence of the past

Even the horrific outcome of the Omagh bomb was not sufficient to persuade the Real IRA to stop their campaign.

Who will win out in the end? Will it be the optimists like former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who tells the programme: "Northern Ireland has set itself a path 11 years ago now and its not going to change."

Or will it be the dissidents like the speaker at the Wexford rally, who has this to say:

"Let me send this message to Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. We are not the traitors. We stand fast to the 1916 proclamation democratically endorsed in 1918; it is you who are the traitors."

Panorama: The Gunmen Who Never Went Away, BBC One on Monday 30 March 2008 at 8.30pm.



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