The dissident republican groups are using well-tested tactics to ratchet up tensions in Northern Ireland.
Following the murders of two soldiers and a police officer, one of the groups, the Continuity IRA, is now threatening the lives of prison officers.
The terrorists obviously are hoping that this despicable threat — whether real or not is immaterial — will provoke some kind of over-reaction, especially from loyalist paramilitary groups. During the Troubles republicans and loyalists fed on the fears of their respective communities and the dissidents want a return to those days of tit-for-tat mayhem.
There was a real fear that the recent murders of the soldiers and the police officer would have seen loyalists threaten to retaliate against the nationalist community. However, the loyalist paramilitaries did not rise to the bait. Instead, like the politicians of all shades, they showed a new maturity and |reacted in a considered, rather than knee-jerk, fashion. Indeed, there was the hitherto unimagined sight of senior loyalists and Sinn Fein members in the congregation at the funeral of the murdered |police officer.
In the past loyalism has been marked by factional fiefdoms and cult leaders. There was little cohesion in their actions, with individual brigadiers or commanders setting their own agenda of violence. While a central command structure did exist, its writ often did not carry much weight with local terror gangs. Now there appears to be a little more centralised command and more joined-up thinking among the loyalist paramilitaries.
There is growing pressure on the loyalists to decommission and the first hints that it might |become a reality are emerging. While the Secretary of State has set a deadline for the beginning of decommissioning, past experience shows that deadlines can be flexible as long as there are some encouraging signs of movement in the right direction. It is unlikely that political warnings of some unspecified dire consequences if the loyalists don’t decommission will weigh too heavily on the paramilitaries, but they know that their day, like that of the IRA, is over.
They also realise that there is little public support for them within the unionist community. That community does not want armed gangs in its midst at a time when political progress is being made and is being supported by the vast majority of people in the province. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning is due to report this summer on the progress being made by the UDA and UVF towards handing in their weapons. The community at large will expect to see real progress |towards that goal.
The loyalists must accept that if they do not begin decommissioning, they run the risk of becoming as ostracised as the dissident republicans.
Even mainstream republicans have asked their supporters to give the PSNI information that could lead to the arrest of the killers of the soldiers and |police officer.
That is the fate that surely lies in store for the loyalist paramilitaries if they continue to defy the rule of law and the desire for a peaceful, purely political future for Northern Ireland. The message to them is clear — there is no hiding place for armed terrorists, be they republican or loyalists.