The murder of two soldiers in Northern Ireland is the latest and most horrific manifestation of increasing dissident activity there. The Real IRA which carried out the shootings remains marginal and fragmented. How far the killings risk undermining the peace process, will depend on how the security and intelligence agencies and politicians in Northern Ireland, respond to them.
The murder of two soldiers and, in a separate incident, a police officer will be regarded more with sorrow than surprise in Northern Ireland. By most accounts, the vast majority of people who live there have become used to and comfortable with peace and relative prosperity. These killings come as a grim reminder of a past when shootings and bombings were common place and many lived in fear of the men and women of violence in their communities. It is more than a decade since a police officer was killed in the Province.
Who are the dissident groups behind the murders?
No one, bar a tiny minority, wants a return to that. There is no significant support for the dissident republican groups which carried out the murders. They are fragmented - geographically and organisationally - made up of small local cells with less of a central controlling core than the Provisional IRA used to have. These cells are more like criminal gangs. They do not appear to have any clear political strategy. They claim they want a united Ireland and the British out. But they are not part of the current peace process and make no effort to become politically engaged. They do not follow the social agenda, trying to win the hearts and minds of their local communities as the IRA used to, through Sinn Fein. They are viewed by most in Northern Ireland as remnants of the past – not as part of the future of the Province in these new, peaceful times. Police, politicians and government have been quick to use rhetoric branding them not as politically motivated, organised groups – but as criminals.
There is little doubt the dissidents are involved in criminal activities – smuggling commodities between Northern Ireland and the South, running extortion rackets and meting out their own punishments on those in their communities who cross them, in the form of beatings and kneecapping. They are very small in number. There are two separate groups. The Real IRA has a small, hard core in County Down. It carried out the Omagh bombing in August 1998 and the bombing at the BBC in 2001 and has claimed responsibility for the murders of the two soldiers in County Antrim on Saturday night. Continuity IRA is an older but even smaller group with clusters of support in the Counties of Fermanagh and Armagh and in Belfast. Occasionally the two groups are thought to have collaborated. Whitehall sources estimate between them they have possibly dozens, certainly not more than eighty loosely associated members.
Terrorist activity has been on the increase
Both groups - but the Real IRA perhaps more so - have ’upped the ante’ in the past eighteen months. Overall dissident activity in Northern Ireland had been diminishing for several years, but the past year has seen a slight reversal in the trend. This has been monitored by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, hand–in-hand with MI5 with their large headquarters on the banks of Belfast Lough. They have warned that something was likely to happen. Only two weeks ago, intelligence reports, combined with the increase in terrorist activity, led MI5’s Northern Ireland office to increase the official threat level for the Province from ’Substantial’ – meaning an attack is a possibility – to ’Severe’ – meaning an attack is highly likely.
No one could miss the rise in dissident activity. There have been a number of attempts to kill police officers ranging from two shooting attempts almost simultaneously in different parts of Northern Ireland, to a booby-trap bomb planted in a culvert ready to detonate as a police car drove by, to a 300 pound fertiliser-based car bomb in County Down, which was defused before it could explode. The intended target for that may have been a nearby army base.
The dissidents are clearly still able to acquire weapons. Some are left over from the Provisional IRA days. But some will be coming through criminal routes from places like Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
In response to the increased threat, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland Sir Hugh Orde, via the Ministry of Defence, recently (before the latest murders) brought in a small number of Special Forces officers. It was a controversial move, unpopular with republicans who had campaigned for decades to see British troops removed from the streets of Northern Ireland. These particular officers will not, however be running covertly round the countryside – they are surveillance experts brought in to use their expertise to improve surveillance equipment used against the dissidents.
Sir Hugh, keen to maintain the integrity of the peace process, and thus the ensure republicans remain onside, has been quick to point out there will not be a return of British troops to the streets. There are soldiers in Northern Ireland – but not out on the streets. It is unthinkable to politicians on all sides that they could return to army patrols in public. It would send a negative message to a public which is almost unanimously supportive of the peace process – and would undermine the work of politicians and industry in establishing lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
Politicians unite in outrage
The political reaction to the murders has shown just how far the peace process has come. Who would have thought a decade or two ago it would be possible that a terrorist shooting would be condemned in a joint press conference held by the Chief Constable Sir Hugh, Peter Robinson of the DUP and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness?
The response from Sinn Fein in particular is critical. The dissidents are largely remnants of the Provisional IRA that Sinn Fein (SF) used to run. SF leaders need to strike a careful balance, ensuring they do not send republican waverers on the extremes back into the arms of the men of violence in groups like the Real IRA. They need to keep sceptical republicans on track – in support of the peace process. To that end they cannot be seen to be getting too close to political opponents who do not want a united Ireland. It is more difficult for SF leaders to condemn outright an attack on British soldiers – easier to condemn the shooting of the police officer who they regard ultimately as one of them – an Irishman. In response to the murders, Gerry Adams has repeated his republican aspirations. But hehas also made it clear 'there is no turning back' to violence - Sinn Fein will campaign for a united Ireland through peaceful, political means. He condemned the killing of the soldiers as 'a deliberate and calculated attack on the peace process' and supported the police hunt for the killers. His colleague Martin McGuinness, speaking after the further attack which killed a police officer, went further:
'These people are traitors to the island of Ireland. They have betrayed the political desires, hopes and aspirations of all the people who live on this island'.
Intelligence and security response
The rise in the threat level recently signified an increase in security – around business and key installations and buildings and for police, army and intelligence agencies. There is of course frustration that although the police and MI5 have a good idea who the dissidents are, they were unable to prevent the murders. They had enough intelligence to issue repeated warnings of an increase in terrorist activity, and it would be surprising if the main suspects were not under some kind of monitoring and surveillance. But bugging homes, vehicles or phones is one thing. That and other intelligence methods can reveal information of a will and even an assumed ability to strike, on the part of the dissidents. But putting fifty or eighty suspects under round the clock surveillance, following their every movement night and day is not a realistic option – it would take hundreds of undercover officers – in areas which are thinly populated and where new faces could quickly be noticed. MI5 has increased resources in Northern Ireland in response to the killings. Other than that we will not hear much of the details of the intensive investigations in to the killings which are now underway. Sir Hugh and his detectives have appealed for anyone who may be sheltering those responsible to come forward. But though Northern Ireland has moved on, the legacy of earlier times is harder to remove – people will still be very afraid to give information about suspects within their own communities.
Implications for the rest of the UK
So what are the implications of the killings for the rest of the UK outside Northern Ireland? In reality they change little – so long as the peace process holds and the dissidents are kept at bay. The Director General of MI5 Jonathan Evans warned only two months ago that dissident Irish terrorism remained a threat to the UK. He confirmed the increase in activity in Northern Ireland. It is fair to presume any Republican dissident would have designs to carry out attacks in England. But in truth they may not have the capability. It is not impossible – but it is not highly likely either. In the current climate it will be doubly difficult for any suspected dissident to slip through security from Northern Ireland to England, Scotland or Wales without being noticed.
As colleagues of the dead soldiers from 38 Engineer Regiment head for their next posting which is in Afghanistan, and a review of army security gets underway in Northern Ireland, it is now down to the Security and Intelligence agencies to prove they can get a firm grip on the dissidents, and reverse the upward trend in terrorist activity. Moreover it is for the politicians – and in particular Sinn Fein – to keep the peace process strong. They cannot give the terrorists any hint that violence can undermine that process. If they do, they risk seeing the dissident groups grow rather than disintegrate.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.