The dissident republican cells of Northern Ireland are sometimes referred to by the intelligence services as "mosquito groups", meaning that they lack the capability to mount a sustained campaign of terror. But, as Saturday night's assault on the Massereene army barracks in County Antrim demonstrates, mosquitoes can still be lethal.
The murder of two soldiers has sent a shockwave through Northern Ireland, where memories of such attacks in the years of "The Troubles" are still very close to the surface. The attack is an embarrassment for Sinn Fein, which had accused the Northern Ireland chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, of exaggerating the threat posed by dissident republican groups and had pushed for a faster "normalisation" of policing in Northern Ireland.
That process will now be suspended. It is most unlikely that the army will return to the streets, but security will be stepped up across Northern Ireland. Every police station and army barracks will now be reassessing its security. This is a step back. The dismantling of watchtowers, the replacement of armoured Land Rovers and the increase in unarmed police patrols were all striking visual symbols of the improvement in Northern Ireland's security since the Good Friday Agreement 11 years ago.
A return to tighter security is, of course, what the terrorists want. These diehards hope to provoke a reaction from the security forces, to polarise the community and to drive up public support for their campaign among nationalists. For them, the value of each attack they mount is less the body count than the force of the response it generates.
But while these dissident groups might attain some success in the short term, they will be frustrated in their larger aim. The likelihood is that the broader peace process will hold. The mainstream political parties of Northern Ireland have too much invested to allow it to be derailed by such attacks.
The run-up to the European elections in June will be a test. Parties usually get jittery before polls and there is likely to be some tension between the two largest parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. Policing could be a flashpoint. But neither party is likely to pull out of the ruling coalition at the Stormont Assembly.
Nor is this a case of politicians acting in their narrow self-interest. Both parties recognise that the Northern Irish public – on both sides of the sectarian divide – has no desire to return to the days of shootings, bombings and direct rule from London. The support for these renegade republican groups among the nationalist community is small.
The DUP First Minister, Peter Robinson, and his Sinn Fein deputy, Martin McGuinness, were due to travel to the United States in an attempt to drum up foreign investment for Northern Ireland. The group that carried out this attack might consider the cancellation of that expedition to be a triumph.
But the very fact that this trip – by two politicians who were once so implacably opposed to dealing with each other – was due to take place actually demonstrates how ideologically marginalised these terrorists are. Northern Ireland and its responsible politicians are looking outwards to the world and thinking of the future. These dissident groups are looking inwards and hoping to summon up the horrors of the past to serve their own political ends. Thankfully, the signs are that they will not succeed.Reuse content