Northern Ireland: the peace process and the dissident menace

For most ex dissidents – republican and extreme loyalist – the war in Northern Ireland is over. But last week's letter bombs are a reminder that a threat remains

The wave of letter bombs despatched to army recruitment offices in England last week is a chilling reminder that not all republicans support the Northern Ireland peace process.

The mainstream IRA is now inert, while Sinn Fein, its former political wing, is an integral part of the coalition that runs the Belfast government. But the letter bombs are an assertion that violent rejectionist splinters continue to wage a small-scale war which most of the population regards as completely futile.

For most of the former militants – both republican and extreme loyalists – the war is over. But a range of tiny but dangerous Irish republican groupings insist that the battle will go on until Britain surrenders. Yesterday, the dissident group that styles itself "the IRA" claimed responsibility for the letter bombs, warning menacingly: "Attacks will continue when and where the IRA see fit."

The political backdrop is that the vast majority in Belfast, London and Dublin are dead set against this and support the compromise arrangement under which Northern Ireland is administered by a Protestant-Catholic coalition. Yet still the republican dissidents carry out, to general exasperation, dozens of attacks every year within Northern Ireland. And everyone knows that one of their biggest hopes is to take their "war" to Britain in a sustained way.

Could they achieve that? The belief among the security authorities is that the dissidents lack the ability to mount a campaign and that there are no "active service units" undercover within England. Nonetheless, no chances can be taken in guarding against a group that has murdered security force members in Northern Ireland. Above all, the terrible memory of the Omagh bomb in 1998, which killed almost 30 people, stands as a reminder of how a single attack can claim many lives.

After Omagh, the dissidents seemed chastened and went quiet for a while. But they re-grouped, first in Northern Ireland and then, briefly, in Britain. Their last serious attacks here came in 2000-01, when one dissident group carried out several "spectaculars": a rocket was fired at the headquarters of MI6 while several car bombs were detonated, one of them at BBC Television Centre in west London.

Since then, their activities have been almost entirely confined to Northern Ireland. The security services frankly admit that they had assumed that the residual threat from terrorism would decline as the new political arrangements took root and the peace process bedded in. Instead, the dissident campaign has proved infuriatingly persistent, claiming a number of lives and costing tens of millions of pounds. The actual numbers actively involved do not appear to have grown significantly, but the number of groups has proliferated, using names such as the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and simply the IRA. The battle against them has gone on for more than a decade, carried out in Belfast by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and MI5, with the latter taking the lead on the mainland.

The scale of the threat has ebbed and flowed over the years. In 2010, MI5 said it considered that the threat posed by dissidents to Britain had risen from moderate to substantial, signalling that an attack was a strong possibility. Two years later, however, it judged that the threat had diminished and was lowered from substantial back to moderate. As the Home Office explained: "This means that a terrorist attack is possible but not likely."

In June of last year, MI5 chief Andrew Parker spoke almost dismissively of the dissidents as "ragged remnants of a bygone age who are in a cul-de-sac of pointless violence and crime with little community support".

While there has been little sign of dissident activity within Britain, Northern Ireland experiences attempted attacks on a regular basis. Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said ruefully last year: "The threat is severe and is likely to continue in the years to come."

The posting of letter bombs to military offices has been taken seriously, since all such devices can cause injuries. The threat was discussed at the Cobra emergency committee meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on Thursday. The small devices could have injured anyone handling them, but were unlikely to be lethal. Described as extremely basic, they are said to have contained powder rather than explosives.Such devices are, in fact, one of the easiest, cheapest and, for the bombers, least risky means of attack in the terrorist arsenal.

"They're easy to do," one security expert said last week. "They involve little more than powder, wires, stamp and a jiffy-bag."

Such devices are, in other words, the simplest way of grabbing headlines and proclaiming that the groups – which are so small that mainstream republicans dismiss them as "micro-groups" – remain in business. Despatching them is not, therefore, regarded as any kind of major achievement.

Although the dissident menace within Northern Ireland is graded as severe, there are signs that they are in some difficulty. There have been attempts among the groups to form alliances, but there have been many splits in the dissident undergrowth. A stream of operations has gone wrong, with activists arrested with guns or bombing equipment in their vehicles.

Arrests and seizures of weaponry are almost commonplace, as are bombing attacks in which devices do not fully explode. The security forces claim that they are able "to detect and disrupt the vast majority of their attempts".

In Belfast, such patterns immediately raise the suspicion that the ranks have been penetrated by MI5 and Special Branch, using either electronic surveillance or agents planted within the groups. Belfast newspapers often report complaints from individuals who claim that they have been approached to act as informants.

Among those charged in recent months are three of the best-known republican activists in Northern Ireland. Chief among them is Colin Duffy, regarded as probably the most dangerous republican of them all, who over decades was charged but not convicted of a series of murders of security force personnel. In 2012, he was acquitted of the murders of two British soldiers at Massereene army base in County Antrim. He is now charged with IRA membership and plotting to kill members of the security forces.

While some individuals have been implacably militant republicans for years, showing no signs of deviating from hardline attitudes, others have been voicing some intriguing new opinions. One long-time republican, Gerard Hodgins, said recently that he believed some of the armed groups had been infiltrated by the security forces. "They are all stuck in small factions," he says. "None of the dissidents are espousing a radical political programme – it's all just 'Brits Out'."

Another figure with impeccable republican credentials, Dominic McGlinchey, said there needed to be a conversation about the future of the republican movement. "What is very clear is that the appetite is not there for a full-blown campaign," says McGlinchey, whose mother and father, both activists, were shot dead during the Troubles. "It's not that you are asking republicans to give something up," he adds. "It's a matter of being pragmatic and astute."

No one is forecasting that the dissidents are anywhere close to abandoning violence and no one is dropping their guard. But such comments are the first time that anyone in the dissident world has publicly wondered whether the campaign of violence is going nowhere.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
News
people
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star