Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Discovery of milk-churn bomb at a Dublin hotel shows factional feuding and criminality haven't blunted dissident threat

The pre-Christmas bomb attack by dissidents in the busy Cathedral Quarter of Belfast
Aftermath of mortar attack on PSNI patrol on Falls Road
The hotel in The hotel in Dublin where latest bomb find was made where latest bomb find was made

That bomb found in a car at a Dublin hotel at the weekend is yet another warning, a reminder of the threat still posed by the many different dissident factions operating under a number of IRA noms de guerre.

Homemade explosives had been placed inside a metal keg and, according to reports, the device had all the bits and pieces that would be needed for detonation.

But its timer had not been set and the emerging view is that the bomb was to be transported north, most probably for an attack on a security target.

It's the theory that makes the most sense, and that fits into the dissident pattern of activity and a reminder that, even when we don't see or hear them, these groups are plotting their next moves.

But there is also a reminder for them in this latest discovery of one of their bombs. That is the gap between attack planning and actually getting a device to its target and then getting it to explode.

The weekend discovery of the bomb fits a pattern. Devices are often seized and arrests made. On other occasions, bombs malfunction.

And, when you talk inside the republican community about this latest incident, so you are introduced to the mess and the muddle of that dissident world; nothing is ever certain or clear.

One figure whose name came up in the discussion is originally from Belfast with links to the Continuity IRA but, more recently, involved with other dissidents in Dublin.

The conversation moved from bombs to extorting money from drug-dealers; this is the confused – and confusing – picture that is the dissident world. It has many hidden corners and many competing interests.

For all the statements of intent, the different factions under their numerous titles have not been able to mount anything that could be described as a sustained campaign of activity.

There are always interruptions and setbacks; always stories of what could have happened and what might still happen. Indeed, one of the groups now claiming the IRA title spoke recently of a new Semtex supply and a new threat.

After an attack on police on the Falls Road, I met with two representatives of that organisation in a windy and dark corner in west Belfast. One took a statement from his shoe, the other shone a small torch onto the handwritten note. As he read, I scribbled the words onto several scraps of paper.

It was a statement admitting an attack on police using an explosively formed projectile (EFP). The statement claimed a direct hit on a vehicle, although this was rejected by the PSNI.

And the dissidents also claimed their intention was for another so-called 'active service unit' to open fire on any officers who might have exited police vehicles at the scene.

There is no way of verifying that claim. These were words on paper, easily said. But, in that meeting in mid-March, the threat of further attacks was made along with suggestions that the dissident IRA had that new supply of explosives.

Since then there has been a significant Semtex find in Belfast, but whether that is evidence of a new supply is something that is still being assessed. It is also something that is "greatly queried", to quote one intelligence source.

MI5 and police intelligence officers know that dissidents are using the internet to research bomb-making methods in international conflict zones. They saw evidence of this in a device that exploded on a street in Belfast's busy Cathedral Quarter before Christmas.

But the word "crude" is still attached to much of the dissident technology. This includes the letter-bombs sent in recent months to Army careers offices in Britain and to high-profile policing and political figures here.

As well as the actions and threats that are a continuing part of the dissident play, something else is being watched and read and assessed. This is the commentary from a number of republican figures questioning the use of arms.

"I don't see mass appetite at a street level for the armed campaign," Dominic Og McGlinchey recently told The Irish Times. "What I am saying is that we should not be bound by the weapons. Just because they are there does not mean that they have to be used." This is one voice out there with a big family name to bring to the conversation.

But we don't know how much that type of thinking is working its way into conversations among those who direct the dissident IRA coalition, the Continuity IRA and the group Oglaigh na hEireann.

The killing in Belfast recently of one-time senior dissident figure Tommy Crossan had nothing to do with "armed struggle", nothing to do with forcing the "Brits" out, or with changing political agreements.

In this world, "cause" republicans and criminals collide.

It is all part of that confused – and confusing – picture.

Their "wars" are going nowhere and there are those who can see this, and who are questioning the worth of armed actions.

That argument hasn't yet been won and the bomb discovered in Dublin is evidence that there are those who aren't listening. They will try again, could kill again. But for whom? And for what purpose?

These are the unanswered questions among smalls groups of republicans, some of whom can't go away and others who won't go away.

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