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Constable Ronan Kerr was getting into his car to go to work when a booby-trap bomb placed under his vehicle exploded. The twenty-five year old had only been in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) a few weeks and was one of a growing number of Catholics who have joined the force in recent months, an upsurge which has pushed the percentage of PSNI officers from the Catholic community to nearly one third.
Vital Recruitment of Catholic Officers
The importance of ensuring this trend continues cannot be underestimated - it is a hugely important plank in the peace process. The PSNI, set up to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 2001, must reflect the entire community - Catholic and Protestant - if it is to function effectively and with legitimacy across Northern Ireland. Swelling Catholic recruitment is a sign of growing cross-community confidence in the force, but the dissidents who now appear to be specifically targeting Catholic officers - incidents of which have gathered pace over the last two years - are clearly aware of this, and are trying to undermine Catholic presence in the force by instilling fear. It is critical that the authorities step in to ensure that recruitment from all segments of society - and the nationalist Catholic community in particular - continues.
It is therefore encouraging to see how quick people from all sides have been to condemn the killing. What is more, within hours of his death PC Kerr's own mother, along with senior police officers and politicians from all sides, went further - urging young Catholics not to be deterred from joining up. The former IRA chief-turned-Sinn Fein politician, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, commended PC Kerr's 'courageous' decision to join the PSNI.
Constable Kerr's death comes weeks before the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in London, and a planned visit by the Queen to Dublin (scheduled for next month). There is little doubt that the dissidents aspire to disrupt those events, and whilst it is unlikely that they have the ability to do so, the potential threat cannot be ruled out. The Security Forces in Belfast, Dublin and London will now no doubt be revising security plans ahead of these events.
In Northern Ireland, where the quality of life has improved beyond recognition in recent years, there is a weariness and sorrow about this latest development. Younger members of Constable Kerr's family supported his mother as she spoke within hours of his death of his bravery and of her pride in him. They will have little, if any, memory of The Troubles - the days before the peace process when such killings were depressingly routine. The Northern Ireland they are being brought up in is a very different place.
It is true that sectarianism remains a deep-rooted problem, with jobs, education and housing in very many areas still divided along Protestant and Catholic lines. But there are no troops on the streets, there has been heavy investment in Northern Ireland and the major retailers have returned. Most of the time, most people can move about freely. One key visible difference when compared with other parts of the UK is the fact that the police service is armed - a sad necessity, as PC Kerr's death has shown.
Dissident Republicans are assumed to be behind this killing. For months now, Catholic officers in particular have been targeted: earlier this year a Catholic police officer was seriously injured by a bomb placed under his car. The dissidents are generally known to the security forces. They are small in number, but not so few that they could be followed day and night - the police and the Security Services, MI5, simply do not have the resources for that level of surveillance.
Continuing The Troubles
Two main groups have been slowly increasing their criminal and terrorist activity in recent years: the Real IRA (RIRA) and the Continuity IRA (CIRA), both set on undermining the peace process.
The Real IRA is a splinter group which broke away from the Provisional IRA in 1997 when the latter announced a ceasefire and joined the peace process. It has carried out a number of high-profile attacks, including the 2001 bombings of various sites across the England - including the BBC headquarters. It also claimed responsibility for shooting two soldiers in Northern Ireland in 2009. The Continuity IRA (CIRA) has been operating since 1986. It was largely inactive for a long time, but in recent years it, like the RIRA, has ramped up its campaign. It claimed to be behind the murder of PC Stephen Carroll - the last police officer killed in Northern Ireland, in 2009.
In recent months a third group has emerged calling itself Oglaigh na hEireann -Soldiers of Ireland. Intelligence sources suggest the organisation is largely made up of members or former members of both groups, who have joined up so that they can have wider impact.
The dissidents do not enjoy popular support, but they do exploit less affluent communities, where they are able - in a limited way - to recruit disaffected young people who may be looking for aim and purpose.
Constable Kerr's death at his home near Omagh inevitably brings echoes of the worst atrocity of the past 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland, the Omagh bombing in 1998, an RIRA-orchestrated attack which killed twenty-nine. His murder is a sign that the dissidents remain a substantial threat.
The will of the people of Northern Ireland, and of the politicians in particular, is strong and focussed. The vast majority are determined not to allow this latest death to derail their journey towards lasting peace. The dissidents may be criminal in spirit, a painful thorn in the side of the largely peaceful population of Northern Ireland. Their constant and slightly increasing terrorist activity is wearing. Renewed efforts are needed to deal with them before their activity escalates to a degree where other dissidents may decide once again to take the law into their own hands and pick up their weapons.
The violence has not yet reached this point. But the upward trend in terrorist activity must urgently be addressed - even if this means the utilisation of extra resources. With the focus elsewhere in the UK mainly on the international terrorist threat, the risk from Northern Ireland's dissidents must neither be overlooked nor under-estimated.