Dissidents beginning to doubt their divided fight
Oglaigh na hEireann sees its plot to kill police officers as part of a 'war'. But it is also battling on a second front - behind bars at Maghaberry jail. It can't win either, says Brian Rowan
It is a world - and a 'war' - in which the pendulum swings one way and then the other. And it is a familiar battle that, for the various dissident groups, has produced moments that they would term 'successes' and others they would label 'failures'.
We do not always see what is happening; nor does MI5, equipped with all its listening and watching gadgetry.
At different times, there have been attempts to join up all the different bits of that dissident republican world - its many disparate and fragmented pieces.
At one point, the discussion was about forming a kind of interim 'army council', with representatives from the Real and Continuity IRAs, Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) and that block of 'independents' who are dissident, but not card-carrying members of the organisations.
There have been times of operational cooperation, sharing resources, doing things together: the gun-attack at Massereene Army barracks in March 2009, in which Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar were killed, is one such example.
But that grand plan of one group and one leadership has not materialised: there are too many competing individuals and interests; too many egos; too much suspicion; too many doubts.
And, when you scratch the surface of all of this, you wonder how much belief and confidence there is in the different wars; what they are really about and what those who are directing them think they can achieve.
I have heard some of those who are part of this world doubt themselves; think and say out loud that they are not sure what this phase of 'armed struggle' can accomplish.
These are battles that can't - and won't - be won. And any notion that the dissidents will force a political re-think, a rewriting of the negotiated agreements, is the stuff of cloud cuckoo land.
The Continuity IRA is fractured, broken into several pieces. And across that dissident world there are many 'army councils'.
The one-leadership plan disintegrated - part of the reason being deep suspicion about one of those nominated to sit at the new top table; suspicion that he was - and is - an agent, what is termed a Covert Human Intelligence Source (Chis).
Dissidents will point to 'headline' moments: the car bomb at Palace Barracks, which houses MI5 headquarters in Northern Ireland; the gun attack at Massereene Army camp; and those under-car boobytrap bombs, including the one that killed Constable Ronan Kerr.
In the cold language of war, these are their 'successes'; some of the things they would say have worked.
They will also tell you about things that nearly worked, such as a plan in recent days to launch a mortar-bomb device packed with Semtex at a police vehicle in north Belfast.
Again, in that cold talk of war, the ONH faction explained its thinking: to "wipe out the car and its occupants", not just to kill the officers, but to prompt a security review.
A police car was the specific target, with the attack designed, in part, to force officers back into armoured Land Rovers.
The dissidents don't want normal, or personal, policing.
They want to push officers away from the community. They want a security image that suggests war, not peace.
The ambush was planned in a spot where police vehicles have to slow down, making them an easier target. But it was abandoned when no police car passed where the horizontal mortar had been set up.
And this is how close it gets some times; in the minds of the dissidents the fine line between success and failure.
But, in the here and now, it is not just their wars they are thinking about. There is another battle going on inside Maghaberry jail: protests about strip-searching, lock-up times and association.
It means prisoners are being locked in their cells for long periods - some for 23 hours each day; others for 24 hours.
It also means in that dissident world the focus is not entirely on their wars. They have to think about their prisoners and spend time in long conversations trying to resolve this dispute.
ONH had threatened prison staff, warning they had the personal details of officers up to and including governor level. It was a threat that was later publicly withdrawn, but since then the prisoner protest has escalated.
Searching prisoners leaving and entering jail is seen as an essential part of security; something on which there is no room for compromise. Justice Minister David Ford has made that clear. And so the stand-off continues.
It means the dissidents are fighting on another front. But what is the challenge in all of this? It is to give more serious thought to how you end these wars - both inside and outside jail. On the ground, the recent momentum has been with the police on both sides of the border and the security service (MI5). Clearly, they have had good intelligence and have interrupted both activity and planned attacks.
But in this world, the pendulum can swing the other way. There will be other attacks. The dissidents will get under the intelligence radar. And, when they do, lives are at risk.
So there is a need for a big conversation and it should be about the self-doubts the dissidents have. If they know this phase of armed struggle can't - and won't - succeed, then what is it about?
That is the question they should be engaged on.
And it should be the focus of every conversation.