New Year – Old Threat – Old Tactics – Old Talk

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Twelve days ago as I sat in the company of a senior intelligence officer I heard him speak the words “multiple-casualty attacks” and describe “relentless” background activity.

He wasn’t being alarmist.

The officer has been around long enough to remember the IRA war at its height – the ferocity and slaughter of those decades before the ceasefires and political agreements.

So, when he speaks about the current republican threat, he does so in the context of all that stored memory and knowledge.

He knows the ‘new’ IRA – the latest dissident coalition – is not the old IRA; not in terms of capacity, weaponry, expertise, finance, numbers, know-how and support.

Police foresic experts at the scene of a failed under car booby tcp bomb attack in east Belfast. A PSNI constable found the device beneath his car in his Upper Newtownards Road home.


It has, however, borrowed from an old war book; borrowed tactics and learning and practice, and the title itself – IRA.

Using the backdrop of a jail protest in Maghaberry, the latest of the dissident creations targeted and killed prison officer David Black in a drive-by shooting at the beginning of November.

It was about being seen and heard; the instrument of violence used to announce itself on yet another war stage.

I have described the building of this new IRA as a work in progress.

It has brought together a number of factions including the once described Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and ‘unaffiliated’ dissident figures who are linked to the headline attacks at Massereene Barracks and the killing of Ronan Kerr.

The senior intelligence officer described a “winnowing process” – the weeding out of those not trusted as this latest IRA moves to assert itself inside that fractured dissident world.

It has not brought everyone under its umbrella.

The group Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) is not part of the new amalgamation, but is part of the continuing deadly street play and is linked to a number of the recent planned attacks on security forces.

So, the “relentless” activity described in that conversation with a senior intelligence officer twelve days ago stretches beyond the IRA coalition.

Many eyes and ears are needed to watch and listen and to try to interrupt the conspiracies and attack-planning that are part of this world.

A police officer and his family had the luckiest of escapes on Sunday.

The constable, with 16 years service spanning the RUC Reserve and PSNI, spotted a bomb under his vehicle.

He looked, checked his car, and that saved his life and kept his family safe.

It is an illustration of the thin line between life and death, and on its twitter account, the Police Federation is stressing how vital it is for officers to remain vigilant and highly-cautious.

The dissidents are involved in wars that can’t and won’t be won, but while they continue they pose a serious threat to life.

Who can stop them?

This is the question and challenge.

The senior intelligence officer I spoke to recently knows only so much can be achieved in that world of covert watching and listening.

There is no such thing as 100% security or intelligence, and there will always be moments when the dissidents will come in under the radar.

That security and intelligence will contain and restrict the threat. It won’t end it.

So, there is a task for others, including those who were the key players and leaders in the IRA war.

They need to engage the dissidents; make a dialogue happen and begin this “uncomfortable conversation” within the republican community.

The Irish Government should be involved, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and others who have clout.

It is not about negotiation because there is not a new political package to offer.

The will and mood of the nationalist/republican community needs to be loud and clear and the dissidents need to hear it.

Yes they can have a different opinion, yes they can disagree with the Sinn Fein strategy, but they need to understand there is no support for armed activity and no point or purpose to these actions.

In a recent statement Martin McGuinness said the following: “I earnestly hope that we will continue to move towards the development of a new phase in our Peace Process in 2013 and that the seeds of reconciliation among and between all our people will grow.”

Martin McGuinness – once described as a hawk of the IRA war – needs to make a conversation happen amongst republicans – all republicans – and urgently, and the unionist/loyalist community needs to take a good look at itself also;

Ask what is the point of the street play over flags, what they think protests will achieve, and think too about how they are pulling police resources all over the place at a time when dissidents are trying to achieve “multiple casualty attacks”.

Those who were central to the ending of the long wars – republican and loyalist – now have another role to play.

It’s time for leaders and leadership.

This process doesn’t work when the tail wags the dog.



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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.


  1. Nice article, but it’s not talking that may normalise our society, it’s listening and understanding what is being said. Words like ‘justice’, ‘culture’ and ‘sharing’ which we hear constantly mean totally different things to different people depending on viewpoint, background and political or religious stance. Context is everything but runs against the apparently overwhelming need for a snappy headline or a 5 second soundbite.

  2. Brian you analysis is probably spot on in terms of the
    potential threat posed by these groups. However I’m not sure what form the
    dialogue you suggest should take.

    You rightly say that it is not about negotiation. These
    groups and individuals are politically bankrupt and are hanging on to a
    romantic notion based on old rhetoric. In August 1994 Republicans abandoned
    armed struggle, not because it believed it to be wrong or because of some
    crisis of conscience. Nor was it surrender to a greater force. The ceasefire of
    1994 and the subsequent initiatives came about because there was a realisation
    that armed conflict had reached a point where it was either non productive or
    counter productive. Some will argue that that point was reached long before 1994
    and they may well be right. But the point is that republicans had a political
    strategy, an achievable goal and popular support within the nationalist
    community. The New IRA, ONH and the other guises that these micro groups use
    have none of these.

    The will and mood of the nationalist/republican
    community is loud and clear but the dissidents don’t want to hear it. No-one
    has been more vocal than Sinn Féin in articulating this. Their startegic analysis
    of how best to achieve the goal of a reunified Ireland has been put to the
    people in the north time and time again and the nationalist people have overwhlemingly
    endorsed it time and time again. Senior Republican and Nationalist politicians
    have frequently offered both publically and privately, to meet with the
    disaffected and dissenting, the media have asked them to put forward spokespersons
    but their responding silence continues to be deafening.

    The dialogue you propose I imagine would be very
    short. There are only so many ways you can say to someone that what you are
    doing is politically, morally and strategicaly wrong, it is not the will of the
    people, it will achieve nothing and you should stop it immediately.

    • Hi Ciaran – there were once those who argued that there was no point in talking to the IRA or republican leadership, that they won’t listen, that talking to ‘terrorists’ is wrong and dialogue gives them the oxygen of publicity.

      Hume stepped outside that frame, and his talks with Adams created a structure within which the peace process was built.

      I agree the ceasefires and subsequent decommissioning and demilitarisation were not moments of victory and defeat, but an indication of a military stalemate; of wars that could not be won.

      There are those, now described as dissident, who understand this; who know that armed actions will not force political or security change, and who are engaged in activity that has no purpose or point other than to kill.

      They need to be challenged in a structured and all-inclusive dialogue – which is not just the responsibility of Sinn Fein, but a task for the wider nationalist/republican community and all its parts.

      That dialogue will only work in private. The key players need to make it happen – set a date, and if the dissidents don’t turn up, then the talks should go to them.

      There should be no hiding from this conversation – a dialogue that is about life and death.

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