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If Provos got rid of Semtex, why are we still discovering it?

Just how did 30-year-old explosives from a Libyan shipment that was destined for the IRA end up being found in a block of flats in north Belfast this week, asks Henry McDonald

Published 24/06/2016

Libyan arms ship The Eksund was found carrying weapons for the IRA in 1987, but Martin McGuinness is probably unaware that some of the Semtex from that period remains in storage to this day
Libyan arms ship The Eksund was found carrying weapons for the IRA in 1987, but Martin McGuinness is probably unaware that some of the Semtex from that period remains in storage to this day
Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness returned home from France yesterday on a very important mission. He and Arlene Foster were trying to find a large venue for a fanzone for Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland supporters this weekend. It was an issue undoubtedly more talked about at the bus stop, on the train, in the workplace, or the pub than all the pros and cons of the European Union referendum taking place at the same time.

Finding an alternative site for the fans was of paramount importance to the football-mad First and Deputy First Ministers. The fact that they secured another location for the biggest fanzone in the province is commendable and the pair should be congratulated for doing so.

There are now going to be places in the open air, where the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland faithful can watch their teams on the giant screen (hopefully) making history tomorrow and Sunday.

It was also heartening to hear that some Northern Ireland fans shook Martin McGuinness's hand, while others treated him with courtesy during his visit to Paris to watch Michael O'Neill's men face the Germans on Tuesday night.

Perhaps it is yet another small indicator that politics and society in general continues to normalise here - to the point where those who hold polar opposite views on the very existence of the State can at least treat each other with civility.

There is, of course, a minority faction on the republican side that views normality in Northern Ireland as an enemy and as a process of sell-out.

As I write here in central Belfast, a number of young men have just pushed leaflets through the door from the Cogus "Prisoners of War Welfare and Support Group" - an organisation that stands behind jailed republican dissidents held in Maghaberry prison.

The leaflet alleges that the British (via MI5) and the PSNI have introduced a policy of "internment by remand" - in effect, remanding republican suspects for an inordinate period of time as a means of removing those would resist normalisation from the streets, without - in many cases - securing actual convictions.

Prison was - and continues to be - one part of the republican struggle, as does its "cutting edge", i.e. armed actions.

In their war against normality, the New IRA and other organisations opposed to the political settlement have been trying to murder police officers, off-duty soldiers and members of the Security Service at MI5's regional HQ in Holywood with a series of bomb attacks. This week, however, that campaign suffered another setback when the PSNI found 1.5kg of Semtex hidden in a tower block in the New Lodge district of north Belfast.

The discovery is further evidence that the PSNI and MI5 appear to be winning the intelligence war against republican hardliners. This was the second find of Semtex in the very same flats' complex during the past two years.

It is obvious that the security forces have, via both human intelligence and technological surveillance, an insight into the planning and operations of the armed republican factions.

However, it is undoubtedly the case that this Semtex, which was manufactured in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, was part of the massive arms and explosive shipments Colonel Gadaffi sent to the Provisional IRA in the 1980s, which begs massive questions about Provisional IRA decommissioning, possible collaboration between mainstream republicans and dissidents, and grassroots republican support for policing.

The answer to the question of the IRA's decommissioned arsenals lies in the split within the movement in 1997, when, out of a fractious "army convention" in Co Donegal rose the Real IRA.

Republican sources have told this author (later verified by Irish security sources) that, prior to that schism, one of the future leaders of the Real IRA had a contingency plan. This was to take some of the armaments out of centrally controlled IRA arms dumps and conceal some of the war materiel in other hides, whose existence and location were known only to him.

These secret dumps were believed to have been created in isolated areas near the border, possibly in Co Cavan, and only relatively recently were opened up to the New IRA.

Between half to one tonne of Semtex was split up and moved to other weapons dumps in Northern Ireland and the Republic, including the explosive found in the New Lodge this week.

Speaking from Paris ahead of the Northern Ireland match, McGuinness told BBC Radio Ulster that he was "hugely relieved" that the Semtex had been found before, according to the PSNI, it could be used to create under-car booby-trap bombs.

What the presenter failed to ask the deputy First Minister was how come Provisional IRA-controlled Semtex was now in the hands of republican dissidents?

Did he believe some mainstream republicans passed on the explosive to their supposed rivals? Or did he think there had been raids on Provisional IRA dumps ahead of the 1997 split by leading dissidents opposed to the direction McGuinness and other Sinn Fein leaders were taking the movement?

It would be unfair and inaccurate to allege that McGuinness and Co turned a blind eye to the activities of those stealing from the arsenals to set up a fresh armed campaign. They probably didn't even know it was happening.

Yet, surely the IRA's Army Council would have had an inventory of weaponry, and a weapon so critical to their armed campaign - Semtex - would have been high up on the priority list of any war materiel stocklist.

Were the authorities, North and South, ever later made aware of the existence of this missing Semtex? Or, indeed, whatever else leaked from mainstream to dissident arms dumps?

Perhaps, in 40 years' time, when the Government papers are released, both in London and Dublin, it will finally emerge if this type of information was passed on as part of moves to blunt the nascent dissident threat.

In the meantime, hard questions, like the above, should be asked a little more forcibly when those once in overall charge of these arsenals come onto radio programmes just after some of Col Gadaffi's lethal gifts to these islands are belatedly uncovered.

In raising these intriguing questions, it is important to stress that there is no collaboration between mainstream republicans and dissidents - except for the overlapping criminality that goes on in places like south Armagh. Politically speaking, the two wings of modern republicanism are now national enemies.

These days, Martin McGuinness is more likely to get a civil word from a liberal unionist Northern Ireland supporter than from the sort of angry young recalcitrant nationalists who stuffed a leaflet through this writer's door, with its truculent language about "internment by remand" and "the restoration of justice" being "much more important than electoral gains, or ministerial cars".

Belfast Telegraph

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