Northern leaders aware of trap posed by republican dissidents

 

ANALYSIS:Dissident militant republicans hope their violence will see British troops back on the streets of Northern Ireland with communal tensions thereby inflamed

SHORTLY AFTER midday yesterday, Sinn Féin and the DUP finally presented a united, strong, empathic response to the murders of the two young soldiers in Antrim town on Saturday night. They circled the wagons before serious political damage was done.

While the so-called Real IRA and the other dissident republican groups pose a serious continuing threat, Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams agreed they must not be allowed to destabilise the powersharing institutions.

The initial cool, clinical response from Sinn Féin to the killings of the soldiers 14 hours after the attack on Sunday morning was still causing waves yesterday morning, as evident on Morning Ireland on RTE Radio 1 and Good Morning Ulster on BBC Radio Ulster where Gerry Adams was quizzed about his first reaction.

However, when he rose in the Assembly to respond to First Minister Robinson’s well- crafted, heartfelt statement on the murders of the young British army engineers – or sappers – Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, there were words of human feeling at last.

“We understand grief and loss and violent bereavement,” said the Sinn Féin president. “I want to extend my sympathies and the sympathies of Sinn Féin to the families of those killed and injured on Saturday night. This Assembly is united in solidarity and I join with the First Minister in his condolences to the bereaved families and underpin his commitment that this Assembly is resolved to work through our difficulty. There is, as he said, no turning back.”

It was important that Adams spoke in such a fashion. It was important that the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders, in speaking compassionately, also made it clear that politically the Real IRA would not succeed in driving a wedge between the two main powersharing parties, as was part of their aim.

It was also important because on the airwaves again yesterday, grassroot unionist suspicion and uncertainty about Sinn Féin’s bona fides in its response was manifest, notwithstanding that other senior Sinn Féin politicians such as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly condemned the attack and called for public assistance to the PSNI in helping apprehend the killers.

Anti-Belfast Agreement unionists such as those in MEP Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party were also attempting to sow division between the two parties by pointing to the technical, dispassionate nature of Sinn Féin’s initial reaction.

It was important that Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness – at the start of their visit to the US today and ahead of their St Patrick’s Day meeting with President Barack Obama – can tell American politicians, investors and reporters that they are a team even as Adams says that one is an “unapologetic republican”, the other an “unapologetic unionist”.

So, Gordon Brown – who paid a solidarity visit to Massareene British army base in Antrim yesterday morning and later met party leaders at Stormont – and Brian Cowen should be reasonably satisfied that the centre ground now occupied by Sinn Féin and the DUP is holding after a few worrying rumbles.

They and their security chiefs and advisers, however, will continue to have concerns about the threat from the Real IRA, which carried out Saturday’s attack, and the other dissident republican groups.

After meeting Brown yesterday, and also speaking in the Assembly, Adams said he was prepared to go “toe to toe” with the dissidents. Quite how he could square up to them wasn’t made clear but as well as posing a threat to life, security and politics in Northern Ireland the dissidents are also seeking to undermine mainstream republicanism as led by Adams in its own back yard.

Recently, following similar comments from Adams, senior republicans said groups such as the Real IRA were exerting payment levies on drug dealers in nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry while also claiming to be acting against the dealers. Such actions challenge the Sinn Féin writ in republican areas.

The Real IRA, which also operates under the banner of Óglaigh na hÉireann, is believed to have between 200-300 members. It is seen as the most dangerous of all the dissident groups, which include the Continuity IRA and INLA. After the Omagh bombing in August 1998, in which 29 people died in the single worst act of mass murder in the entire Troubles, it briefly left the paramilitary stage, but then began to regroup and reorganise.

Notwithstanding the jailing of some of its leaders such as Michael McKevitt and Liam Campbell, the Real IRA remains grimly focused on causing death and political instability.

The PSNI, Garda and MI5 have had considerable success against the dissidents. Some 80-100 of them are in prison in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Through surveillance, informers and intercepts, the Garda and PSNI intelligence operators, GCHQ and MI5 – have wide knowledge about their members and their methods of operation – but they haven’t complete knowledge.

There is still agreement that the dissidents will never have the capability or capacity for a campaign of violence such as that mounted by the Provisional IRA, but intelligence sources say they are developing sufficient capability and capacity to stage more attacks such as they did at Antrim. That is why the sources say the dissident threat level will remain high for the “foreseeable future”.

PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde in recent months has given particular praise to the Garda, saying its actions against dissidents undoubtedly saved the lives of his officers. Over a year ago, Sir Hugh said the dissidents were “inept” and “disorganised” but dangerous.

In the meantime, the groups – particularly the Real IRA – have restructured and reorganised and now intelligence sources agree that they are considerably more deadly and dangerous. That is reflected in the threat level shooting up to “severe” or very high in recent weeks, with Sir Hugh calling in British army special reconnaissance personnel to assist his officers in combating the dissidents.

No matter how good the security intelligence, the Garda and PSNI cannot cope with every eventuality that arises. That is reflected in how the Real IRA in November 2007 was able to shoot and wound two police officers in attacks in Derry and Dungannon. In May last year, a PSNI officer was seriously injured in a booby-trap Real IRA bomb attack in Co Tyrone. The organisation was involved in several other attacks against the PSNI.

As well as the danger of more people being murdered by the Real IRA and other dissident groups, there is also the threat that their actions could drag the loyalist paramilitaries back into engaging in sectarian killings.

That is what the dissidents want. They also want British troops back on the streets. They would hope for a disproportionate response from the PSNI or British army or perhaps even the SAS, which could prompt a shift in the nationalist mood.

The security and intelligence services in these islands know they face serious challenges in resisting the dissident threat. At least Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are conscious of the trap the Real IRA and other groups want to set for them.

  • Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor