A new approach may help to thwart terrorist attacks
Whoever is Prime Minister, Chief Constable Matt Baggott's priority remains the dissident threat, writes Brian Rowan
Published 10/05/2010 | 08:00
Once the horse-trading over a hung Parliament is finally settled, the focus locally will quickly return to the big questions and challenges - one of them security.
Governments and political leaders come and go and, in all the re-working of the political landscape here, the on-the-ground issue is still the dissident threat.
Irrespective of the political structure, Chief Constable Matt Baggott still has what is called 'operational responsibility'. That means the job of shaping the security response to that threat posed by groups such as the Real and Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann - and doing so without political interference.
It is a response that has to be worked within financial realities. And, in the current economic climate, new money for new or more resources will be hard to find.
Recently, the PSNI has been somewhat battered and bruised, criticised for its responses to the bombs at Newtownhamilton PSNI station and the Palace Barracks military base in Holywood, which houses MI5's Northern Ireland headquarters.
On the latter attack, I read the criticism in a leaked military document. That does not mean a security crisis - it means a need to get better in those responses to alerts and attacks.
Nor does it mean going back to the old book and the old ways of security.
In the period of the election, I had a chance to speak with Matt Baggott and some of his senior colleagues. I got no sense of panic, no sense that they wanted to bring soldiers back onto the streets here.
What is also important is that they are not swayed in their thinking by those voices from the past, those who argue that the RUC did it better. Those who make those arguments forget, or ignore, much of the reality of that period of policing.
They forget the mortar-bombs driven into London for an attack on Downing Street, the other bombs that were used in an attack on the Army's Thiepval Barracks headquarters in Lisburn and forget the theft of intelligence secrets from the offices of the Special Branch at Castlereagh - a break-in blamed on the IRA.
There is no such thing as perfect security, perfect policing, or perfect intelligence - not when the RUC was in charge, and not now.
In the period of the election, I also heard others speak of the need to think about an approach to the dissidents that goes wider than policing and security.
That means a dialogue of some description; the sort of thing that usually begins with quiet and deniable conversations.
This is about trying to reach the dissidents and their leaderships - trying behind the scenes to make them think and do differently.
It has been done before, both here and elsewhere. The Government communicated with the IRA in a secret 'back channel'.
It is about trying to talk your way out of conflict rather than fight your way out of it and it is an acceptance that there is no such thing as a security solution in these situations.
Yes, you can contain the threat in security approaches, but you cannot remove it. So the purpose of a dialogue has to be to try to persuade the dissidents along a different path; take them away from a whole range of activities, from so-called 'punishment' attacks inside their own communities, up to the bombs that have been headline news recently.
This means taking risks. And if it is to be tried, it means finding people whom the dissidents might listen to.
It could lead to long conversations with no guarantees. The dissidents could decide to fight on - and might continue to suck more young people into a conflict they know little about.
Post-election, one of the big challenges is to try to get them to stop. That means thinking outside the security box - taking those risks and doing things differently.