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The decision to raise the threat level in Britain from Northern Irish Republican terrorist groups from ‘moderate’ to ‘substantial’ caused considerable surprise among policy-makers and the public. Terrorism from ‘over there’ was supposed to be over. Although low-level ‘dissident’ Republican violence has rumbled on in Northern Ireland, it has been more than a decade since dissident Republican groups attempted a sustained campaign of violence in Britain.
A failure to target Britain was never a conscious decision. Heavily infiltrated by MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), various Republican terrorist groups, including the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, lacked the capability and opportunity to launch a new wave of attacks in Britain. However, the emergence of the ‘New IRA’ in 2012, an amalgamation of groups styling themselves as the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs and an assortment of smaller dissident Republican organisations and clubs, has caused some alarm among security officials in Northern Ireland. The New IRA is a brittle organisation, riven with factions. However, its leaders know that to gain traction they need to score a ‘spectacular’ success, perhaps similar to the Provisional IRA’s bombing of London’s docklands in 1996. They hope to draw Britain’s security forces back into a more hard-line campaign of counter-terrorism that will galvanise opposition to the UK state and win both new recruits and political attention. There is mounting concern within the PSNI and MI5 that in 2016, the centenary anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, dissident Republicans possess not only the intent, but also the means, of carrying out attacks in Britain.
The New IRA, although only a few hundred strong, draws upon an increasing number of disaffected Republican veterans – many were young Volunteers when the Provisional IRA entered the peace talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. These ‘military wing’ Republicans condemn Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, for ‘selling out’ on Irish unification. They argue that Sinn Féin has degenerated from a proud Republican movement into a complacent and greedy political party that has adopted all the trappings of British capitalism but failed to deliver for their constituents (discontent with Republicanism led to the election of independent socialist Gerry Carroll to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 5 May, topping the poll in the traditional Republican stronghold of West Belfast). The prospect of Irish unity has receded; the political path has failed. Moreover, any dissent against ‘conformist Republicanism’, they allege, is brutally stamped out by the PSNI and other ‘agents’ of the British. A sense of continued victimhood and repression by the British state is key to their political narrative. Initially much of the traction gained by dissident Republicans, including the New IRA, was in pockets (such as small parts of housing estates) of Belfast, Derry, Strabane, Armagh, East Tyrone and across the border in north County Louth, County Monaghan and in West Dublin.
Since 2014, there has been an uptick in New IRA and other dissident Republican activities in West and North Belfast as well as along the border near Newry and Dundalk, including vigilante attacks on/extortion of drug dealers, small-scale riots and attacks on PSNI patrols in these areas. The ‘street influence’ of former Provisional IRA commanders loyal to Adams and mainstream Republicanism is on the wane and is, to some extent, being filled by the New IRA and other dissident Republican groups. New IRA activists have worked to exploit grievances and tensions – for example with respect to disputed parades by the Orange Order in North Belfast. Noticeable too is that prosecutions and convictions for dissident Republican vigilante attacks in North and West Belfast have been less forthcoming of late, suggesting that there is an increased sense of fear among local residents and a lack of co-operation with the PSNI. Meanwhile, the PSNI is, by its own admission, a stretched force, having to deal not only with Republican dissident activity but also with significant criminality and violence perpetrated by Loyalist paramilitary groups.
As well as gaining some traction in urban and rural pockets of Northern Ireland, dissident Republicans appear to be improving their bomb-making skills. The New IRA’s ability to produce explosively formed projectiles, used in an attack on the PSNI in 2015 (and with such deadly effect by insurgents in Iraq), is a new development and a grave threat to the security forces. There is also a belief among security personnel that at least one former Provisional IRA bomb-maker may now be making devices for the New IRA. However, while some devices show a degree of sophistication, others still appear to be rudimentary (the device that ultimately killed prison officer Adrian Ismay in March failed to fully ignite). However, the New IRA clearly has access to some semtex material – left-over from The Troubles and possibly taken from a former Provisional IRA arms dump south of the border.
Ironically, one of the gravest threats to the New IRA comes, not from the British or Irish security forces, but from Dublin-based criminal networks which have recently assassinated a number of New IRA members. The New IRA, accustomed to extorting money from drug dealers in Northern Ireland, attempted a similar tactic against the Kinahan gang and other drug-dealing networks operating out of West Dublin. These groups appear to outmatch them – both in terms of firepower and muscle.
The PSNI fears that dissident Republicans will want to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising with a major attack, a clear statement that the 1916 Proclamation of the Easter Rising – the article of faith of every Republican – remains unfulfilled until the ‘Six Counties’ [Northern Ireland] are fully ‘liberated’. Moreover, dissident Republicans follow the long-held logic which holds that, in terms of political impact, one bomb in Britain is worth a dozen in Northern Ireland. To dissident Republicans, the heightened fear and sheer weight of resources dedicated to preventing a Daesh attack in Britain, may be a ripe moment for the New IRA to remind the British public that it has not gone away. To paraphrase the old Republican saying, ‘England’s difficulty may be the New IRA’s opportunity’.
Edward Burke is a Lecturer in Strategic Studies at the University of Portsmouth.