The dissidents are a reminder of the dark old days, but they do not have the wherewithal of the IRA, writes security expert Brian Rowan
How — after Saturday — do you begin to explain to people that the dissidents are not an IRA? Not an IRA in terms of capability and threat. After the shooting, killing and wounding at Massereene Barracks you could argue, it is not the point.
But it is the point in terms of political and security responses and the future of Northern Ireland, or the north, as others prefer to call it.
At the weekend the dissidents painted a murder scene and a reminder of the dark old days — but they cannot recreate the “war” and all the daily routine and happenings in that decades-long conflict.
That needs to be said, because the dissidents will want a knee-jerk response to what they did — will want troops back on the streets and will want a crisis within politics.
They want the peace process to fail.
Massereene, to quote one republican source, is “their best so far”.
It sounds so cold and callous, but it is not meant that way. He means “best so far” in terms of how they want and would like to portray themselves — as an army fighting an army.
On Saturday night they fired on soldiers and civilians, on whoever was in their way.
What happened at the weekend is one incident in a pattern of activity that shows many failed attacks, and an incident against a backdrop of storytelling about the extent of dissident involvement in crime.
Could Saturday’s shootings be some attempt to shake off that “criminal” label — to show themselves as soldiers and fighters?
It is devastating for those who have lost family and friends — devastating for those who were wounded, and it worries and angers communities who thought all of this was a thing of the past.
Having succeeded in their terms, the dissidents may try something more. That cannot be ruled out.
“They will want to demonstrate that they have a capacity,” one source commented.
Intelligence is never a complete picture. This has always been the case.
The weekend attack — where it happened, how it happened — came in under the radar.
For all the intelligence-gathering gadgetry that is used to listen and watch, there are blind spots — not everything is seen and heard.
They were not expecting an attack at Massereene Barracks. The security focus will have been elsewhere.
Two pieces of information emerged in briefings in the past few days — that MI5 considered the dissident threat to be “severe”, and that Army Special Forces soldiers were part of the background security operation.
The latter sparked a political row — a questioning of the Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde by the SDLP and Sinn Fein over why he had not shared this information with the Policing Board.
And then the dissidents struck, where they were not expected. The issue now is the response.
“It seems the threat is spread further and wider than was realised,” the SDLP’s Alex Attwood said.
“Parties and the public will be very much behind a full policing response,” he continued.
“The dissidents will be hoping for a response that ends up attracting more to their narrow and |destructive cause,” he added.
That is why the response has to be measured and proportionate. Nobody will want to play into the hands of the dissidents.
In the peace, people relaxed, and the dissidents took advantage of that. What do they do next?
“They believe, stupidly, that they can win,” one source commented. But do they really believe that?
A war of several decades produced a stalemate.
The dissidents have not the wherewithal of the IRA. They have not the resources to fight a sustained campaign — never mind win.
But two more soldiers are dead, and their families are grieving. And in our imperfect peace that is the human story of what happened on Saturday.