Dissidents pose less of a threat as splits widen
Penetration by the Security Service, MI5, and a switch to anti-capitalist targets has tempered the renegade republican threat - for now. Henry McDonald reports
Don't say it too loud, but in the second half of 2011 the disparate factions of anti-ceasefire republicanism have been relatively quiet.
So does this inaction reflect recent successes for the security forces? Or does the lack of armed activities since the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in April suggest a revision, or a rethink, in the strategies of the Continuity IRA, Real IRA or Oghlaigh na hEireann?
In terms of the first question, the most obvious place to look at is the Republic and, in particular, Dublin. Across the Republic's capital, at least two of the hardline republican groups are engaged in diversionary struggles both among themselves and with criminal gangs in the city.
The Continuity IRA in Dublin insists it remains united, but there is a breakaway grouping which also has a base in Limerick city that is engaged in a shooting war with its larger rival.
This splintering has recently spread north into Maghaberry jail, with five republican inmates moved out of the main house holding dissident prisoners.
Their departure - under threat of death - is being linked to the battle between the CIRA and former colleagues. Given what we know about the often amoral and manipulative nature of the security forces' secret 'war' against armed republican factions, it is not too fanciful to find the origins of this latest feuding as the work of agent provocateurs in the pay of the state.
What is undoubtedly clear is that the Garda Siochana has made significant in-roads into the main dissident movements on the other side of the border, particularly in the capital.
Judging by the number of arrests in the south of dissident suspects and the terror operations the Garda thwarted this year, it is obvious that this is all in large part due to the recruitment of informers in the organisation's ranks.
All the security analyses to date concur with the view that the Garda has made serious intelligence in-roads into the three main terror groups.
After Christmas, the Garda reported that the threat from armed non-political criminal gangs is now a greater threat to law and order than the dissidents.
Over the last decade, up to 200 people have been killed in the crime-wars blighting working-class districts of greater Dublin and Limerick - most of which remain unsolved.
This gangland war has been boosted by a new mini-industry: the sub-contracting of hitmen and bomb-makers formerly linked to terrorist organisations now working for the crime-gangs.
Many ex-terrorists capable of close-quarter killings, or building bombs, have found more lucrative careers as crime sub-contractors, rather than inside the ranks of the anti-ceasefire republican movements.
Of course, the greatest barrier to the anti-peace process republicans remains the nationalist population, in particular within Northern Ireland.
While there has been some worrying signs of support among economically and socially-alienated republican youth for the dissidents, the overwhelming majority of nationalists back the political settlement at Stormont and still vote for Sinn Fein.
The dissident guerrilla is, therefore, swimming in very shallow water with few outlets for logistical help and support from their host communities.
The other main reason for a downturn in dissident terrorism in the second half of 2011, posited at the start of this piece, may also have some validity.
In an interview with the Real IRA back in the early autumn, amid bellicose threats to bankers and the banking system, there was a telling comment on the internal debate ongoing within all strands of dissident republicanism.
The Real IRA representative revealed that there were discussions about the future, including the efficacy of the 'armed struggle'.
There was a passing remark that some were arguing for a more economically-driven campaign against strategic capitalist targets like the banks - a kind of Irish Baader-Meinhoff-style of Leftist terrorism for the 21st century.
Those advocating such a departure are clearly hoping to capitalise on the widespread hatred directed at the banks and other capitalist institutions on the island.
This is why the Real IRA admitted a few months ago that it targeted the Santander bank in explosions at Derry and Newry this year as it seeks to identify itself with growing anti-capitalist sentiment.
There was even a hint that some within the dissident groups were questioning the continuation of the armed campaigns, with some arguing for a purely political struggle aimed (somewhat optimistically perhaps) at challenging Sinn Fein's hegemony.
It is difficult to determine if one representative from only one of the disparate factions was accurately reflecting the mixed state of thinking within dissident republicanism.
But clearly there are debates going both inside the terror groups and among those who have renounced 'armed struggle' but still oppose Sinn Fein's political strategy.
Whether this will produce a new peace process aimed at winding down the dissidents' 'war' is open to question.
Certainly, the more fundamentalist republican organisations, like CIRA, remain wedded almost in a theocratic-article of faith way to continuing 'armed struggle'.
All of the organisations opposed to the political settlement at Stormont remain for now incoherent, divided, often fractious and that alone is still cause for hope to those that want to keep Northern Ireland stable.