Fears of dissident attack on Conservative Party conference
The MP and former soldier Patrick Mercer said ex-colleagues have told him that several groups want to "catapult themselves into the headlines" by targeting the Conservative Party conference this autumn.
Mr Mercer, former chairman of the Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, told the BBC: "There are three groups in Northern Ireland which are planning to do something to catapult themselves into the headlines before the party conference season. They wish to kill by the end of the month. They have an aspiration to attack targets on the mainland, including the Conservative Party conference."
However, these dissidents are divided among themselves, with no noteworthy leaders, no votes and no political programme beyond bombing. They have internal disputes which have resulted in their killing four members or former members. Thirty of them, including some notorious figures, are behind bars. Others were recently arrested in the Irish Republic. Yet all the resources of police on both sides of the border, together with the technical expertise of MI5, have so far failed to prevail against groups.
MI5 and Special Branch share responsibility for controlling the agents used to penetrate what are sometimes called the micro-groups. The Branch runs the vast majority of agents while MI5 are the experts in anti-terrorist technology. Both are said to have been given extra resources.
The dissidents upped the ante in March 2009 with the murders of two soldiers and a policeman, triggering a major review by the authorities and increased security force activity. Various arrests and charges followed, but the three main dissident groups – the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, which means soldiers of Ireland – have remained active ever since. The threat they represent is officially rated as severe.
Their last attacks in England, in the early 2000s, included a rocket attack on the London headquarters of MI6, and a bomb placed at BBC TV centre in west London.
But they have mounted attacks in many parts of Northern Ireland, some of which are not at all republican territory. A recent example came with an attempt to blow up an army officer's car in Bangor, a tranquil Co Down seaside resort. Their arsenal includes mortars, pipe-bombs and the frequent use of suspect devices.
In one day, a dozen alerts were caused by the Real IRA, with vehicles hijacked and left at targets such as a police station, a courthouse, shopping centres and a railway line. The main Belfast to Dublin railway line is particularly vulnerable to dissident attacks since it passes through the town of Lurgan which has a republican stronghold.
Their disregard for human life was evident last month when Lurgan rioters attacked a train with fire-bombs and other missiles. One local man described the scene: "There were scouts, old women, old men, international tourists on the train. I saw a fellow approach carrying a five-gallon can of diesel. I was shouting at him, 'There's women and children on this train and you will kill them.' He looked at me and said, 'Fuck 'em. Let 'em burn'."
The dissidents have also staged attacks with undercar booby-trap bombs, in particular targeting Catholic police officers, one of whom lost a leg in one such incident.
Another such attack, in the Co Down town of Kilkeel, generated particular shock. A Catholic policewoman had just strapped her young daughter into her car when she discovered a booby-trapped bomb underneath the vehicle. Mother and daughter were able to flee and the device, which was viable, was made safe by army bomb disposal experts.
The effectiveness of such attacks fits with intelligence warnings in recent months that former members of the now-dormant mainstream IRA have joined up with the dissidents. Although this has happened only in very small numbers, such veterans are providing dangerous new expertise.
Clearly, there will be no relaxation of security in the face of terrorists who are proving so ruthless and, 12 years on from the Omagh bomb, so hard to eradicate.