No room for complacency in fight against dissidents
ANALYSIS:MI5’S DECISION to reduce the level of dissident republican threat in Britain from substantial to moderate is relatively good news for our neighbouring island but makes no difference to the situation in Northern Ireland, where the threat remains “severe”.
Senior security and political sources warn that the hard reality is that it is not a case of “if but when” the next major dissident attack comes in the North.
For the PSNI, the Garda and MI5 the task is to continue to thwart the dissidents’ efforts, as the statistics indicate they have been doing, but nonetheless there is the realisation, as one source put it, that the dissidents have the “ambition and capability to kill police officers or take out a town centre” in a bomb attack.
In a range of attacks in 2009, dissidents killed PSNI constable Stephen Carroll in Craigavon and British soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey in Antrim.
In 2010 they murdered Kieran Doherty in Derry and badly injured Constable Peadar Heffron in a bomb attack.
Last year they murdered Constable Ronan Kerr in Omagh. In 2010 dissidents mounted some 40 serious gun and bomb attacks. There were 26 such incidents last year. In 2012 so far there have been 19 attacks but the difference this year is that, mostly, the scale and nature of the incidents have been of a lower level: for instance, pipe bomb attacks and “pot shots” fired at the PSNI as opposed to major shooting and bombing operations.
The diminution in attacks is believed to be because of concerns at dissident leadership level that the PSNI, Garda and MI5 are having success in infiltrating the various organisations such as Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Continuity IRA and the new, more worrying amalgamation of dissidents – the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and unaffiliated republicans from the mid-Ulster area.
Dissident leaders feel they must consider carefully before pressing ahead with planned operations in case the PSNI already has notice of what is about to happen. “In the recent period they have been on the defensive,” said a senior security source. “They seem to be struggling to have the impact they had two or three years ago.”
But again the British and Irish security and intelligence services know that, regardless of the current downscaling of operations, it is only a matter of time before the dissidents carry out, in their terms, successful attacks. This was demonstrated by the fact that, while most attacks this year were on the lower end of the grade, there was one particularly serious bomb incident in north Belfast at the start of the month.
Police said the projectile bomb discovered in the back of a house on Jamaica Street was “substantial and viable”. It is understood the bomb contained high explosives and had armour-piercing capability, which means it could have been used to blow up a police Land Rover or patrol vehicle.
Sources say the incident underlines the sophisticated bomb-making capability of the dissidents. “The mortars and other stuff they are making are no different than the equipment the Provisionals were making at the end of the conflict,” said one security insider.
The sources add that the dissidents are well-armed, have strong engineering knowledge and have ample funds. While much of the old American “wrap-the-green-flag-around-me” money has dried up, the dissidents are well financed from smuggling and other criminal operations.
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.