Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

Return to painful past as terrorism hits the streets of Belfast again

Blame for Sunday night's car bomb in Belfast was pinned firmly on dissident republicans. But in execution it was pure Provisional IRA, writes Ivan Little

Terror tactics:The aftermath of the Omagh bomb
Apprehension: Matt Baggott

Just like The Hollies, who were singing their old 60s' hits in a concert across the road, the bombers who targeted the heart of Belfast on Sunday night really were a blast from the past.

It wasn't without irony, of course, that one of The Hollies' songs was Here I Go Again, with its lyrics about making the same old mistakes and never winning.

But that's not how the dissident republicans will have seen it, as their partially detonated bomb fully exploded the myth that Belfast is booming in all the right ways.

For just when you thought it was safe to go back in to the Waterfront and the restaurants and cinemas of Victoria Square, along came the self-proclaimed villains of the peace.

It was the first time in years that the dissidents had tried to bomb the city centre. And though only the booster charge went off, the attack didn't really come as a surprise to security bosses.

For a while the exploits of the republicans may have been like all our yesterdays, they've been starting to dominate more and more of our todays and threatening our tomorrows as they edge closer and closer to getting their act – of terror – together.

Every day, it seems, the mishmash of republican micro-armies who won't let go of ancient struggles are going back to the future as they up the ante of their efforts to cause carnage and chaos.

Their modus operandi at the weekend was textbook terror. Hijack a car here. Order a driver to take it there. And in an instant, there's dread and disruption everywhere.

The bombing at Victoria Square on Sunday night was blamed on dissidents, but it was pure Provo in its execution.

They packed their bomb in to a beer-keg – a flashback to the way we were before the IRA decommissioned and departed the terror stage.

It even sounded horribly familiar. Just like the Shankill massacre, the Victoria Square bomb raid was launched from Ardoyne, where a Renault Laguna was seized at gunpoint and the terrified driver ordered to get it in to the city centre as fast as his right foot on the accelerator would take him.

As in the days of old, too, the trio of masked and boiler-suited republicans told the driver his car would be tailed all the way, leaving little to his imagination as he pondered what would happen to him if he didn't follow his instructions. And his route.

Doubtless, that fear dissuaded him from trying to repeat the heroics of a bus driver in Derry a few days earlier, when she ignored the dissidents' warnings to take a bomb they'd planted on board to Strand Road police station.

Whether or not she was old enough remember the ruthlessness of the Provos in their prime, in what is now the city of culture, is unclear. But it takes only two words to revive the memories for thousands of others: Patsy Gillespie.

Republicans, including deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, might prefer not to be reminded of the killing, after which the Bishop of Derry, Dr Edward Daly, accused the IRA of "crossing a new threshold of evil".

For Patsy Gillespie, who worked as a cook in an Army base, was the Provisonals' human bomb. He was tied, or shackled, in to the driving seat of a car, which contained a 1,000lb bomb, and forced to drive it to a military checkpoint on the border, where it exploded – killing him and five soldiers. It's almost unthinkable now. But anything went back then for the IRA.

Dissident bombs of late haven't been in the same league as the old Provo blockbusters, and the level of sophistication and organisation within – and support on the outside for – the dissident groupings, is infinitesimal by comparison. But security sources insist only a fool would dismiss the dissidents.

"Don't forget: they were responsible for the most devastating bomb of the Troubles in 1998 in Omagh," said one PSNI source. "Sunday night's bomb was something of a damp squib, but they wanted to do damage – real damage."

The PSNI is growing ever more concerned at the dissident threat. Not just in the number of attacks, but also because of the variety of their devices.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott and his senior officers are clearly worried dissidents could – and will – achieve their aim of killing the individuals they're targeting with smaller bombs, like undercar booby-traps, letter bombs, pipe and blast bombs.

But their fears have been heightened even further by the revival of the car bomb tactic, which could bring even more bloodshed in its wake. Again, it's a throwback to the past, and was obviously plucked from another page of the Provos' terror manual by younger recruits to the dissident ranks or by older, if not wiser, heads in the background.

The bomb was designed to damage one of Belfast's most prestigious shopping centres.

But the fact that the terrorists didn't get it right this time has been cold comfort to businessmen, who've also been underwhelmed by assurances from the security forces that they'll have more officers on the ground to thwart future dissident paramilitary attacks.

One trader said: "Like the sound of Sunday's explosion, Belfast has all-too-sadly heard it all before."

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