Top secret contacts with dissidents called off
A secret contacts channel linking dissident republicans and government officials has gone cold, informed sources have told the Belfast Telegraph.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness publicly revealed the hidden process in August — when he claimed the British and Irish governments were talking to dissident factions.
Now, this newspaper can reveal further details.
As part of the contacts, the Irish government produced a position paper — passed to the dissident leadership by go-betweens.
A republican source dismissed the paper as “dog litter” — arguing a “much more imaginative” approach was needed if the process was to go anywhere.
At least one of the dissident republican groups outlined its position on paper.
The British Government did not produce a document.
Senior dissident leadership figures based in Belfast and on the border have been involved in the process.
This newspaper has been told there have been no face-to-face talks involving the dissident groups and the British and Irish governments.
In the process described to the Belfast Telegraph, there are two go-betweens.
They are working alongside another project that is helping facilitate the process. This newspaper knows the identity of those involved, but is not naming them.
The initial approach to dissident groups was on the question of paramilitary punishment shootings and assaults.
This, according to a senior dissident republican source, was “the key to open the door” to a bigger discussion on the possibility of ending violence.
That source also revealed that “many people” now wanted to talk to the armed republican factions, but that they had to “distinguish between those who are probing and those who are serious”.
Two well-placed sources have told the Belfast Telegraph that the PSNI used the contacts link during the summer marching stand-off at Ardoyne in north Belfast in an attempt to calm the situation. There is nothing at this stage to suggest dissidents are prepared to end their violent campaigns.
Indeed the threat continues to be assessed as severe, with Chief Constable Matt Baggott recently revealing that he will have to move officers from frontline duties so they can guard police stations.
In August, when the Deputy First Minister revealed the contacts, a source pointed to progress on the question of so-called punishment attacks — to a reduction in the number of shootings and assaults.
But, recently, the most active of the dissident groups, Oglaigh na hEireann, has been involved in a surge of attacks in north and west Belfast — “widening the arena” of its activity, to quote one source.
In one shooting, the victim was critically wounded.
Defences strengthened as talks go nowhere
At Palace Barracks — the military base in Holywood that houses the Northern Ireland Headquarters of MI5 — you can see the changes in security.
According to a source at the base, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent since the bomb in April when Oglaigh na hEireann marked the transfer of justice powers from London to Stormont.
The leadership of that group later told this newspaper: “The timing of it was deliberate. The significance was deliberate, and a major effort was put into that operation.”
Since then, a major effort has also been put into securing the base.
Watchtowers have been manned, guards on the gates carry long arms and significant money has been spent on CCTV.
Oglaigh na hEireann did not just attack the base — but had it under camera surveillance.
It is understood an Army major targeted in August for attack with a booby trap car bomb was based at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, but had worked at the Holywood base.
Dissidents will not say how or where they targeted him.
The continuing threat they pose is underscored in last week’s announcement by the Chief Constable on the number of officers he will have to move to guard duties at bases because of the phasing out of the Full Time Police Reserve.
Questions are still being asked about Martin McGuinness’s revelations in August.
More detail has now emerged on the Irish government’s role — with confirmation that an initial position was outlined on paper. There is something that won’t be said out loud.
But, according to a source, the British government believes if secret contacts are going to get anywhere, then this is work for the Irish government and for the republican leadership and community.
There is nothing to suggest progress at this time — and difficult to see where this is leading if the dissident republican demand is really ‘Brits Out’.