Belfast Telegraph

A brand new force but the same old dangers

Catholic PSNI officers could be forced to shelter in police housing estates if the threat posed by dissident republicans can't be contained, a former detective tells Alan Murray

The disclosure that the device which claimed the life of Constable Ronan Kerr contained a 'timer' within its circuitry underlines the advances in bombmaking skills within the ranks of dissident republicans.

It would now appear that the dissident element that murdered the young Catholic officer has perfected a lethal device relatively smaller in scale to similar under-car bombs (UCBs) manufactured by the Provisionals.

Their UCBs contained approximately one kilo/two pounds of powerful semtex explosive, a mercury tilt-switch to trigger a detonator and a timer set to prevent the device exploding within one hour of it being attached to the target vehicle.

A wooden dowel was carefully withdrawn from the Provisionals' device after it was attached to the vehicle - only then turning the plastic container and its contents into a lethal combination.

The hour-long interval allowed the bomber the opportunity to be well beyond the scene of the explosion before it happened and the wooden dowel ensured that, in transporting the device to the target area, he was not in danger of meeting his death in a premature detonation.

The dissidents who murdered Constable Kerr would now appear to have reached the level of sophistication of the skilled Provisional bomb-makers of the 1980s. Their UCBs were lethal and, as one dissident group proved on Saturday, so too are theirs. Being smaller in size than the one-kilo Provisionals' bomb, their device will be much harder to spot using the basic torch and mirror provided to PSNI officers.

Constable Kerr's newly-recruited Catholic contemporaries in the PSNI must now realise that they are well and truly in the frontline. Immense fortitude and community support will be required to guide them through the next few turbulent months - if not years.

Evidently, intelligence information was not available that would have saved Constable Kerr from his terrible fate on Saturday afternoon.

Like Catholic police officers before him in the 1970s, he was specifically targeted because of the community he came from and the calculated impact his death would have on his co-religionists thinking of joining the PSNI as well as those already within its ranks.

Before 1970, RUC officers lived openly in Crossmaglen, Newtownhamilton, Forkhill and Newry. In Crossmaglen, the children of officers stationed in the village attended the Church of Ireland school a short distance away at Creggan.

One former senior Catholic RUC detective recalled how, once the Troubles erupted, the open, convivial atmosphere around police in these areas evaporated.

"The friendly atmosphere was gone within weeks. Two constables were killed in a car-bomb attack outside Crossmaglen in August 1970 and, thereafter, it was the security and safety priority that prevailed. By the time the IRA ceasefire was declared, 24 Catholic officers had been murdered," said the former officer.

"It meant that it wasn't really feasible for a Catholic officer to live in a nationalist area. It led to what we called 'police estates', where a significant number of residents were police officers.

"That could happen again if they specifically target the larger number of Catholics in the police today, because it will be very difficult to protect those, like Constable Kerr, who live in their home areas and whose identities are known by everyone around them. The bombers can come and go literally at will if they live locally."

Like many, the former Catholic officer believes the resolution of the current dangerous dilemma for Catholic PSNI officers will come through rigorous debate within their own community.

"Only the nationalist community united has the legitimate moral and political power to challenge the twisted logic of the bombers, but whether they will listen is another matter," he added.

On the intelligence front, it is regrettably obvious that those who planned the murder of Ronan Kerr were largely, if not completely, below the radar of the current intelligence-gathering agencies - including the primary agency - MI5. The absence of a security footprint on the ground, the loss of experienced intelligence-gatherers and analysts, compounded by the sacking of well-placed republican informants in 2004, has clearly lessened the ability of those now running counter-terrorist operations to accumulate the vital pointers to thwart the dissidents.

Regaining the level of penetration that existed before the 1994 ceasefires will be a daunting task - not made easier by the relatively tiny element overall now waging the campaigns for the dissidents.

One former Special Branch officer said: "Penetrating them successfully will be much more difficult because they're relatively tiny compared to the scale of the Provos, with their international dimensions and the financial dimensions they had.

"As Saturday showed, the dissidents have a capacity to strike with deadly consequences, with perhaps only a handful of people involved.

"The people who made the call to jettison the 24% of top-grade agents in 2004 failed to learn from the history of this island. History has shown that there will always be a rump of republicans in every generation who will pop up and who you will need to keep tabs on.

"At the moment, that rump will be buoyed by what they have done and can sit back knowing they won't have to do anything in the next couple of weeks to prove they have to be reckoned with."

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