From little splinters can grow tomorrow's terrorism

David McKittrick on the future of the IRA
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SECURITY people in Northern Ireland have always been divided on the question of the desirability of splits in the IRA. Some have believed that such schisms are a good idea which should surreptitiously be encouraged to the full.

Others in the security field, who these days are in the ascendancy, regard splits as messy, dangerous and most likely to produce continuing violence. They do not believe the present IRA ceasefire will last for ever, but their view is that, whether in war or at peace, it is preferable for the terrorist organisation to stick together.

These analysts are now watching anxiously as two republican breakaway groups have grown steadily in manpower and technology. They already appear to have attained the capacity to undermine and disrupt the peace process at this most sensitive of times.

The question now is whether all this will develop from splinters into full-scale splits. The new, and as yet unnamed, group which has just emerged as a significant threat has so far carried out less than half-a-dozen attacks, but intelligence sources say it has developed rapidly in its short lifetime and is showing dangerous potential.

That much is known, but in the hazy republican underworld much else is unclear. It is not known whether the new grouping is cooperating with the "Continuity Army Council", the previous breakaway group which dates back to 1986 and which has recently ruined a number of town centres with large car-bombs. It is also unclear whether the new group is receiving unofficial support from individual IRA members who are still attached to the mainstream terrorist group. Some small amounts of deadly Semtex plastic explosives, on which the IRA was thought to have a monopoly, have turned up in non-IRA devices.

The signs are that, despite Unionist claims to the contrary, any such cooperation is not officially sanctioned by the IRA's leadership. But the state of opinion within the IRA itself looks distinctly febrile: Sinn Fein seems anxious to be at the table, but the IRA certainly killed two men in Belfast earlier this year, resulting in the temporary suspension of Sinn Fein from the talks. IRA members also killed a third man in February, though the authorities say they have been unable to establish whether this had been authorised by the IRA leadership. There are therefore many uncertainties as the talks approach their 9 April deadline.

The genesis of the new group lies in an important IRA meeting which took place last November. This brought to a head the opposition to the peace process as mapped out by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and his supporters. A number of traditionalists forced a vote, were heavily defeated, and subsequently walked away from the organisation.

Sources close to the IRA were dismissive: "They put their case and it was overwhelmingly rejected," one said at the time. "They didn't get any support, anywhere." Another source said: "They are serious people who have made a significant contribution. They have been around the struggle for a long, long time, but they were people who haven't been active for a long time."

Given subsequent developments, the mainstream IRA may well have underestimated the renegades' capacity for growth. The new group certainly seems to be making good use of the experience picked up by two of the original dissidents when they held key IRA positions. One, as a former quartermaster- general, was in charge of the IRA's armoury and would thus know where a great deal of its weaponry was concealed. Another, an important figure in the "engineering department", is skilled in the design and construction of the IRA's assortment of home-made but deadly weapons. He may have made the mortars that were fired at Forkhill RUC station on Tuesday night.

No reliable estimates are available of how many may have joined the new grouping. As yet it is clearly minuscule compared with the IRA itself, but with IRA technology at its disposal even a small number of activists can cause considerable damage and disruption.

It is no accident that both the CAC and the new group are predominantly based south of the border in the Irish Republic. In the north, the Adams leadership had brought most republicans along with it, and, indeed, carved out new areas of support with its brand of pragmatic modernisation. Its vote is at an all-time high.

The south, however, has a number of pockets of more traditionalist republicans who have suspicions and reservations about the peace process, and it is here that the splinters have picked up support.

This has been curiously mirrored on the loyalist side, where it has emerged that the fierce new Loyalist Volunteer Force, which is less than a year old, has picked up members from the existing and less active Protestant paramilitary groups. It, too, will be intent on using force to knock the talks off course.

Even a year ago it would have been hard to believe that such new groups could have emerged so quickly and proved themselves so dangerous. The lesson seems to be that Northern Ireland has a ready pool of militancy permanently on tap, always available to step in if established groupings show the slightest signs of going soft.

The prevailing security-force view on the desirability of splits was spelt out some years ago by RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, when he said: "If we are going to have a peace delivered, then we can't have people fragmenting all over the place and engaging unilaterally in violence."

If the militant new groups continue to develop, he and everyone else in Northern Ireland will have to face a hard fact: that even if the talks succeed, a process of paramilitary disintegration and proliferation could mean that hardliners will have the capacity to stop peace coming about.