No room for complacency in fight against dissidents
Another reason for the continuing high alert in Northern Ireland is the link-up in the summer of the Real IRA, RAAD and a number of veteran republicans, some of whom are believed to have been responsible for the killings of the British soldiers in Antrim and of Constable Kerr in Omagh. Membership is mainly from Derry, Belfast and around the Lurgan area.
Some of these are “old guard” republicans “who won their spurs”, as a security source described it, in the days when the Provisional IRA was waging a conflict, but either were never part of the peace process or have become disillusioned by seeing Sinn Féin at Stormont. As basic “Brits Out” republicans, there is little or no opportunity to persuade them down the purely political road the Provisionals finally took.
The only response therefore is the security response.
Sources give different estimates about the number of actual people in the dissident groups, with the figure generally viewed as between 700-1,000. But these can be divided into people who will provide safe houses, “chuck stones in a riot” or gather intelligence, and the hardcore of perhaps a few dozen who are prepared to go out with AK-47s and shoot PSNI officers, fire mortars, plant booby-trap bombs under police officers’ cars or attempt to blow up a town centre with large car bombs.
The chilling film footage shown in court of two dissidents shooting the British soldiers in Antrim over three years ago demonstrated that the dissidents have sufficient members who are willing to kill at close range.
In this deadly contest between the British and Irish security services and the dissidents, the republican groupings have been taking some hits. There have been several arrests on both sides of the Border, while there were three murder convictions for the killings of the two soldiers and Constable Carroll.
The fact that dissidents were unable to mount operations in Britain during the period of the Olympics, Paralympics and Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee celebrations, as was feared, also points to a reduced level of ambition in Britain by these groups.
The additional fact that on Wednesday MI5 could allow British home secretary Theresa May to announce the reduction in threat level in Britain underscores that the security services on these islands are having a significant measure of success against the dissidents and have put them on the back foot to a degree.
However, as any police officer will tell you, there can be no room for complacency. Deadly purist republicanism is in the DNA of the dissidents and they are not going away.
The continuing challenge for the PSNI, the Garda and MI5 is to remain one step ahead of them, but as security and political sources grimly admit, that is not always going to be possible.
Gerry Moriarty is northern editor
MI5 terror alerts: The five threat levels
MI5 operates with five threat levels that inform decisions about the levels of security needed to protect what the intelligence service describes on its website as the UK “critical national infrastructure”:
* Low– an attack is unlikely.
* Moderate– an attack is possible, but not likely.
* Substantial– an attack is a strong possibility.
* Severe– an attack is highly likely.
* Critical– an attack is expected imminently.