David Sharrock: As unemployment soars, splinter cells think their time has come

Eyewitness: Republican 'micro-groups' are showing an alarming resurgence

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To an outsider, a stroll around the Kilwilkie estate in Lurgan, Co Armagh, feels like stepping back two decades. The scorched and blistered roads serve as reminders of cars being set alight for fun or used as barricades. Graffiti extols the IRA, sometimes in the form of a silhouetted gunman in a red triangle with the old Provo taunt of "Sniper at Work" warning the police to stay out. It's more of a "Troubles" theme park than an advertisement for the peace process, which once promised a shining new future for Northern Ireland and a route map out of its seemingly eternal violence.

On the rare occasions when politicians in Westminster are forced to consider Northern Ireland most would be forgiven for shaking their heads in disbelief and asking themselves: "What do these people want?"

Of course the question, and its response, remains the same regardless of the year in which it is asked. There is a hardcore rump of republican diehards who will always choose to use violence to drive Britain out of Ireland. The tide rises or falls, depending on the political and social circumstances.

After a disastrous and brief border campaign in the 1950s, the IRA folded its tents, accepting it enjoyed no popular support but reserved the right to resume hostilities at a more propitious moment. The global civil rights movement of the 1960s was the spark which lit a bonfire that was to burn brightly but uselessly for violent republicanism into the 1990s and beyond. And throughout those years the foot soldiers were the young and unemployed, the bored and under-educated. In short, the easily exploited, looking for a thrill and a cause to give meaning to their grey lives. The recruitment tactics employed today by those groups, which see themselves as the inheritors of the Provisional IRA's legacy, are no different to those of the early 1970s: organised "recreational" rioting coupled with a contempt for the forces of law and order and the state they represent.

The studied ambiguity of the peace process was supposed to buy sufficient time for old patterns to fade. Republicans tended to believe their leaders – particularly those with a military pedigree – when they were reassured that they were being led towards that mythical all-Ireland Republic.

But a new generation, nurtured on the anger of traditional activists who knew Sinn Fein and the Provo leadership were dragging them into a Stormont cul-de-sac, has emerged.

The Centre for Social Justice, Iain Duncan Smith's think-tank, revealed this week that Northern Ireland has the highest level of economic inactivity in the UK, with unemployment doubling in the last two years. Unemployment stands at 17.4 per cent for 18-24 year-olds, which means that traditional republicans believe the tide is flowing in their favour once more.

Riven by splits, the organisations which Sinn Fein call "micro-groups" are proving difficult to track for the security forces. The Real IRA, which murdered two Army sappers last year, is strongest in south Armagh, although a breakaway group styling itself Oglaigh na h'Eireann is gaining traction and is said to have the resources of at least one veteran bomb-maker at its disposal. The Continuity IRA, which murdered a police officer last year, has support in Mid-Ulster and Fermanagh as well as Derry and Belfast. The names may even be irrelevant, since inter-group loyalties and rivalries may dictate the development of strategy.

The international goodwill generated by the peace process a decade ago has been and mostly gone. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement negotiators squandered their best card, at a time when Tony Blair was prepared to concede virtually anything to get a deal. The home team – nationalist and unionist – should have demanded a cut in the province's corporate tax rate to bring it into line with the Republic to transform its heavily dependent public-sector workforce.

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