Why bomb a golf course?
In Strabane, there are several theories about an explosive device discovered on a golf course on Monday morning. But all agree it wasn’t an attack on golfers
Investigations: a forensics team at Ballycolman Road beside the third green at Strabane Golf Club, where an explosive device was discovered on Monday. Photograph: Trevor McBride
Troubled times: an RUC and British army checkpoint in Strabane, in 1978. It was among the most bombed towns in the North. Photograph: Alain le Garsmeur/Getty
Last Monday morning a golfer discovered an unusual-looking object on the third green of Strabane Golf Club, in Co Tyrone. It turned out to be an explosive device that, according to the PSNI, could have destroyed everything within a 20-metre radius.
Following the discovery the PSNI chief inspector, Andy Lemon, said: “While police may have been the intended target, golfers, ground staff or members of the community passing by could have been killed or maimed.”
But why would somebody attack a golf course? The consensus now among PSNI, republicans and local people is that nobody did.
Tommy Forbes, the public relations officer for the golf club, says that on Sunday night the club received a report of disturbance. A short time later a member of the public contacted the police after being approached by two men who identified themselves as dissident republicans. The dissidents said they had left a device in the Ballycolman Road area.
The PSNI placed the area on alert, but did not evacuate it, and began a search. The next morning, says Forbes, a golfer at the third green found what the security forces had been looking for.
After the security forces arrived, Ronnie Wiley, another club member who was playing at the time, almost walked into the area where the device was being defused. It looked like “the inside of a golf-cart engine”, Wiley said. The PSNI said it comprised “nuts and bolts packed into a pipe with explosives”.
Forbes says club members are both upset and surprised at the idea that they would be targeted. “Strabane Golf Club has a long record of cross-community engagement. It’s a nice place for people to go and relax. It’s very down to earth. It’s not like some fancy club in Dublin.”
Everybody T he Irish Times approaches in Strabane condemns what happened, but only Forbes will consent to his name being printed.
The Irish Times is directed to the house of a local community activist in a staunchly republican neighbourhood, where people are friendly to a stranger but the houses are in need of repair, and rubbish and graffiti abound. The activist refuses to identify himself publicly because he doesn’t want “his car set on fire”.
“Everyone feels the same,” he says. “You meet 100 people here, and they’ll tell you it’s awful what happened this week. But [they’ll only say that] in private.” He says people now have other concerns, apart from the republican cause. “Of course everyone wants to reunite with Ireland but the main concerns now are jobs, health and stopping the emigration.”
The Strabane Chronicle carried a front-page editorial denouncing the laying of the device. The paper appealed to the dissidents to let the town better itself.
Strabane has some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in Northern Ireland. During the Troubles it was among the most bombed places in Northern Ireland. Now there are plans to rejuvenate the town. The activist mentions an announcement this week to invest £3.7 million (€4.5 million) in Strabane’s centre.
But the purpose of the device –
security and dissident sources now say – was not to damage the golf club or its members, but to act as a “come on” or trap, to lure police into an ambush. The PSNI says: “This bears the hallmarks of an attempt to draw police into the area.”
The third green of Strabane Golf Club has a gate at one side that opens on to the Ballycolman Road. This section of the road is less built up than other parts of Strabane, and would make for an easy getaway, according to local people.
But even this theory is held by some to be no more than a plausible narrative spun by interested parties. Republican sources question the PSNI’s version of events, claiming that it suits the police to create fear of dissident activity.
“Why didn’t they seal off the area when the warning had been issued the night before? There were children walking to school, and golfers, all within inches of the device.”
The activist contrasts it with an incident the following day, when a second device was found on Townsend Street, in another republican part of Strabane known as the Back End. This was identified as a pipe bomb and 30 houses were evacuated in the middle of the night.
The PSNI press officer tells The Irish Times that army technical officers made the decision regarding the securing of the golf club area.
Fall in violence
The third annual Northern Ireland Peace monitoring Report was released on Thursday. It
says republican dissident activity has never been less effective. Although there was one paramilitary murder – that of Kevin Kearney – in October, this is “as low a figure as ever has been achieved”. There were 27 paramilitary-style shootings in 2013, six fewer than in 2012.
The fall in paramilitary violence is largely down to successful infiltration of the movement by the security forces. Dr Paul Nolan, the report’s author, joked at the report’s launch that dissidents not in the pay of MI5 should contact the citizens’ advice bureau. He clarifies this to The Irish Times as an “off-the-cuff” remark and says dissidents are capable of destruction but “their capacity is nowhere near their level of 2001, 2002 or 2003, never mind that of the IRA”.
It is also widely accepted that the security forces allow paramilitary activity to reach a certain stage before being neutralised.
But while infiltration is effective, the British government warns that the threat from paramilitaries in Northern Ireland remains severe. Among the positive statistics is a more worrying one: that bomb incidents have increased, more than doubling from 34 to 73 between 2012 and 2013.
The dissident activist who spoke to The Irish Times agrees there is a real threat. “It only takes one effective operation,” he says. “The desire is there.”
But the truth is hard to come by in this echo chamber of rumour and speculation. During our interview the activist takes a phone call and refers to somebody who has been shot. Who was he talking to? “The police,” he says with a smile.