Dissident threat hasn't gone away, you know
Renegade republican violence is here to stay but can MI5 repeat the successes RUC Special Branch had against the Provisional IRA, asks Martyn Frampton
Ed Moloney implied in an article in the Belfast Telegraph last week that my report into recent dissident republican activity, The Return of the Militants - published by the ICSR at King's College, London - was alarmist. It should, he said, be taken "with a large pinch of salt".
Mr Moloney is a respected journalist and commentator and I welcome his intervention in this debate. In making his case, however, he seemed to misrepresent some of the arguments contained within my report.
At no point have I predicted a return to the Troubles. I do not anticipate the resurgence of a campaign like that waged by the Provisional IRA.
And I would tend to view assessments, such as that expressed by Basil McCrea last month, when he claimed that the dissidents had 97% the capability of the Provisional IRA, as seriously inflated.
As Moloney himself put it "it would be wrong to overstate or exaggerate" the danger. The dissident groups - as they themselves admit - are not at the level of the Provisionals.
Why is this? Again, I think Moloney's analysis is entirely apposite when he points to the changed context within which the dissidents operate.
The Catholic-nationalist population of Northern Ireland no longer feels that the State is a 'cold house' for them.
As a result of the changes wrought by the peace process, an unprecedented number of them feel that they have a stake and a place in Northern Irish society. Consequently, very few remain willing to give any support to violent groups.
Northern Ireland today is a far better place than it was 20 years ago. The peace process, and particularly the Belfast Agreement, was integral to making it immeasurably more peaceful. But it did not bring peace. This is the truth revealed by the continued existence of still-violent dissident republican groups.
It was for this reason that I produced my report for the ICSR - to examine who the violent dissident groups are, what it is they want and possible responses to them.
The urgency of these questions has, I think, been intensified by the steady drum-beat of attacks and attempted attacks over the last 18 months.
Mr Moloney mentioned the attack on Palace Barracks as a sign of dissident vitality, but he could have mentioned: the bomb that wounded a woman in east Belfast; the device which detonated outside the Policing Board's HQ; the car-bomb that exploded outside Newry's courthouse; or those which damaged Strand Road police station and an Ulster Bank in Derry. Or he could have mentioned the murder of Kieran Doherty, or the maiming of Constable Peadar Heffron.
To acknowledge these incidents is not to over-state dissident capabilities but it is to recognise, in a sober and serious way that, to quote Moloney, "there are people in these groups with the skill, experience, determination and wherewithal to cause serious violence".
So this is not an invented problem. It poses a real challenge to those members of the security services who have the job of combating what are now being termed 'residual terrorist groups'. Their job, I would argue, has been made more complicated by the recent transformation in the security infrastructure.
In the last decade we have seen a shift from one system, based on the primacy of RUC Special Branch, to another, based on the primacy of MI5.
The changes that occurred did so, in part, for good political reasons, yet one consequence of this was a 'skills gap' in terms of counter-terrorism capabilities.
Again, this should not be overstated. Neither should it be an excuse for finger-pointing or criticism.
To some extent, a lack of expertise and experience in dealing with terrorism is inevitable when seen in the context of the significant decline in terrorist activity.
For whatever reason, though, the security services were, as the director-general of MI5, Jonathan Evans, has conceded, caught unprepared by the recent spike in dissident activity.
They have, therefore, had to play catch-up to some degree.
And a question it seems only fair to ask is: can MI5 replicate the kind of successes that the RUC-led counter-terrorist apparatus, for all its flaws, achieved? Such a query is not intended as a critique of MI5. Neither am I seeking to act as some kind of cheerleader for the return of Special Branch.
Rather my point, as outlined in my report, is simply that one security system has gone, to be replaced by another; only time will tell with what result.
In the meantime, the reality is that violent dissident republicanism is here to stay.
Its adherents are not large in number, but they take solace from their ideological certainties.
The dissidents of today believe themselves to stand in the place that the Provisionals once did. They claim the mantle of 1916 and they look to history for validation.
They have no interest in such 'ephemeral matters' as electoral mandates and popular support. Indeed, they glory in their minority status - seeing themselves as the few and the brave who remain uncompromised, when others walked away.
And in all of this there is a certain coherence, in republican terms, to what they say. This is not to over-intellectualise them, or to offer approval.
But it is, I think, to recognise that it is this that explains why, in the broadest sense, the dissidents are there - and why they are likely to remain a feature of life in Northern Ireland for some time to come.