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It is no fairy tale to say dissidents are infiltrated by MI5

Whether or not you believe two ramblers came across a New IRA arms hide in a forest, you can't doubt that the authorities are winning the war against republicans opposed to the peace process, writes Henry McDonald

Published 20/05/2016

Terrorist hide uncovered at Capanagh Forest outside Larne
Terrorist hide uncovered at Capanagh Forest outside Larne

If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise.

If you go down to the woods today, you'd better be weapon-wise.

For every bomb that ever there was,

Will be uncovered from the dump because,

Today's the day the dissidents had their gear nicked.

The tune of the Teddy Bears' Picnic came to mind earlier this week when the PSNI praised two members of the public for stumbling across a significant haul of bombs, home-made rockets, landmines, ammunition and explosive material.

Because the idea that two walkers out for a hike in Capanagh Forest, near Larne, stumbled across a hidden cache of New IRA weaponry in the woodland is as fantastical as a gathering of come-to-life teddy bears having tea and buns under the trees.

Aside from the incredulous nature of the official version of how this terror arsenal was uncovered, there remains the fact that dissident republican organisations opposed to the power-sharing settlement at Stormont are still a potent, well-armed threat.

The weapons the PSNI put on display contained enough components for dozens of bombs. There was also a sophisticated home-made rocket capable of piercing armoured vehicles, which suggests those who honed their technological skills building DIY devices, such as projected recoilless improvised grenades for the Provisional IRA during the Troubles, have transferred that know-how to the dissident republican cause.

The Claymore anti-personnel mine is particularly frightening given the damage and carnage landmines have inflicted all around the world (the results of which this author saw first-hand in Lebanon during the 1990s).

Yet, if - as seems significantly more likely - the unearthing of this latest arms dump was a result of human or technical intelligence, then it is clear that both the PSNI and Security Service MI5 have inside knowledge of the workings of the three main republican dissident terror groups.

As even some of their former comrades (those less hostile to them than from within Sinn Fein) remind them: the State has its eyes and ears on anti-ceasefire republicans 24/7.

The major technological advances in surveillance enables MI5 in particular to spy on and monitor these organisations on a round-the-clock basis.

In fact, it has been argued before that MI5's presence at its regional headquarters at Holywood gives it the opportunity to test out its high-tech spying capabilities in the familiar "laboratory" that is Northern Ireland, and to use that experience to advance its skills in the secret war against the far more dangerous threat posed by Islamist terrorism. Then there is "humint", as it is known in intelligence circles, which to the rest of us means, basically, informers.

No covert war against any underground, secret "army" can be waged successfully without placing or recruiting agents inside armed movements.

Humint, in the long run, provides not only information, but also insight into the thinking of these groups - not only of a military, but also a political nature.

Think of the successful way that the British (from their viewpoint anyway) both - often cynically - not only thwarted IRA operations, but also helped promote those operatives and commanders it had either recruited or compromised.

George Larmour's new book about his policeman brother John's murder - and the handgun used to kill him - led him down some dark back alleyways of the secret war.

One of the central allegations he has made in this newspaper is that his brother's murderers could have been caught because, at the time, RUC Special Branch had just recruited a "superspy" operating at a high level within the IRA's Belfast brigade.

Larmour alleges that, instead of moving against the killers, the policy of Special Branch was to allow certain IRA operations to go ahead in order to establish the credibility of its informant within the Provisionals' structure in Belfast.

In other words, for reasons of State, some people were sacrificed in order to promote valuable spies and agents up through the ranks.

Another fascinating revelation in Larmour's book concerns the gun used to shoot his brother dead inside a south Belfast ice cream parlour.

He raised the possibility that the police-issue Ruger revolver might have been taken from Michael Stone after mourners caught up with him during his murderous attack on the IRA Gibraltar Three funeral in 1988.

That weapon may also be linked to the IRA killing of two Australian lawyers in The Netherlands mistaken for British soldiers. It ended up in Germany without proper forensic investigation into its past history in Northern Ireland.

In terms of the organisation's access to arms, this raises the strange paradox that the IRA, which was at the time shipping in tonnes of heavy weapons from Libya, including anti-aircraft guns, flamethrowers and more, was lacking in handguns to carry out close-quarter murders in Belfast during the 1980s.

Whichever paramilitary organisation secreted those rockets, mines and bomb-making equipment in an east Antrim forest, its members will be now engaged in a molehunt as opposed to a teddy bears' picnic. They will be involved in a forensic search of their own to find out who gave up the information and how this arsenal, buried in a predominantly unionist/loyalist part of Northern Ireland, was compromised.

It is a setback both in terms of the loss of material and psychological confidence. It will also bolster the argument of dissidents republicans' critics that the so-called "armed struggle" is futile in the face of the State holding most of the technological and humint cards against them.

Nonetheless, these groups still threaten peace and stability and, with Semtex at their disposal, have the ability to trigger major bombs here and possibly in Britain if they can get under the radar of MI5 and the PSNI.

Around Easter a source close to one of the founders of dissident republicanism told this writer that following the IRA split that produced the Real IRA, a senior figure in the Provisionals went to the Irish Government and handed over the names of about a dozen prominent people who were going to form the hardcore of a new anti-Good Friday Agreement republican force.

Given that some of the arms dumps under the control of the Provisional IRA - a few of which were raided of Semtex and other material to be transferred into new hides - you would wonder if other top Provisionals offered up information on these as well.

Those who want to see more Capanagh Forest-style dumps uncovered might argue that, given their support for the PSNI and the Garda, senior mainstream republicans should come forward and reveal what they know about that network of secret hides - some of which never fell under the decommissioning process and might still contain more weaponry of war.

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