By George Emery, Undergraduate Student in Politics & International Relations
On a freezing night in Belfast, businesses and homes are evacuated after a car-bomb is discovered near a police station. So far this is not necessarily a surprising description of events, but may be a little more surprising given that this was November 2013, not 1972. The perpetrators of this may have only been children when the ‘Troubles’ begun in 1969, or may not have even been born, but they are using similar tactics to the Provisional IRA, although they see themselves as the sole representative of ‘pure’ Irish Republicanism. Only yesterday (25th November) Northern Ireland’s chief constable Matt Baggott said there had been a recent “surge in dissident republican activity”. It always seems strange when the authorities refer to dissident attacks as being on the rise. One only has to visit the BBC News Northern Ireland page, or Henry McDonald’s terrific column on the Guardian webpage to see that dissident republican activity is a weekly (at least) news story. In the last few weeks this figure has been even higher; on the 10th October the so-called ‘New IRA’ killed a 40 year old man in Belfast and earlier in October the dissidents were blamed for letter-bombs sent to Matt Baggott and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. Gerry Adams once said of the Provisional IRA: ‘they haven’t gone away you know’. This seems apt when referring to the warped offspring of the PIRA, the dissident groups.
The dissidents are no way near as dangerous and expert as the PIRA was at the height of its campaign. However it would be dangerous and naïve to underestimate them. The Continuity IRA (CIRA) who split from the Provisionals in 1986, killed a Catholic police officer in 2009, two days after another group, the Real IRA (RIRA) shot dead 2 British soldiers and wounded 4 others in a gun attack at Massareene barracks in Antrim. Yet another group Óglaigh na hÉireann (OnH) which translates in Gaelic to Soldiers of Ireland (which is also the name of the Irish Army in Gaelic), split from the RIRA in 2008 and are allegedly responsible for numerous attacks, including the murder of a prison officer, David Black, in a shooting on a motorway in 2012, the killing of a Catholic police officer Ronan Kerr in Omagh and the serious wounding of another Peadar Heffron, who sustained severe leg injuries. Both these last 2 attacks involved sophisticated under-car bombs, similar in composition to the PIRA, leading the authorities to warn that an experienced ex-PIRA bomb maker may have been recruited by the dissidents.
The situation is undoubtedly confused by the existence of so many groups, and the apparent crossover between them. For example OnH and the RIRA often claim responsibility for the same attacks, and a new organisation, allegedly composed of some disgruntled ex-PIRA members from Country Tyrone, calling itself Irish Republican Army (but referred to in the media, confusingly, as simply the New IRA) have claimed that they were responsible for the killing of David Black and the murder of Ronan Kerr. The PSNI and MI5 believe that the groups, while independent, are increasingly working together. Indeed the New IRA claim to be an amalgamation of RIRA, the aforementioned Country Tyrone ex-Provos and a vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD). If this is the case then the dissidents could pose a real danger. While the majority of their actions, while serious, have been confined Northern Ireland, one attack on the mainland would be a huge coup for any of the groups. It is important to remember that the RIRA attacked the headquarters of both MI6 and the BBC in separate attacks in 2001, using a RPG in the former case.
It seems to me that referring to dissident attacks as part of a ‘surge’ is curious. It is clear when researching such groups that their capability is restricted to being able to carry out a flurry (for want of a better word) of attacks each few months to show that they are, in effect, ‘still there’. This definitely should not diminish their threat. With the exception of the 7/7 attacks, dissidents have killed far more British citizens than any Islamist-inspired group or individuals. Indeed MI5 have said recently that they are spending almost as much time, resources and money focusing on these Irish groups as Al Qaeda and similar groups. We should not ignore the dissidents or oversimplify their claim by lazily calling them criminals with no support, as Sinn Fein have in the past. Yes it is a sign of the progress made that Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams frequently condemn dissident attacks, even the shooting of the soldiers in 2009, but we need to eventually begin dialogue with the dissidents. The peace process in 1998 occurred after years of talking between the UK and the PIRA, and although their actions must be unequivocally condemned, it serves no real purpose to continue to ignore the dissident groups. The dissidents are not without support, even if their supporters are few and far between, they cannot, and must not be ignored. The killing must stop; dialogue must replace kneecappings and car bombs, so Northern Ireland can finally move on.