Nothern Ireland’s top policeman has warned that dissident republican terrorists are out to kill his officers in the province — even if it means taking innocent civilians with them.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph today, PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde said that dissident republicans are currently “at the top end of activity” and are trying to recruit “young disenfranchised people” to help swell their relatively meagre ranks.
He said: “All the indications are they want to kill police. There is no intelligence at all to suggest they want to currently kill anyone other than police. If innocent ordinary people get in the way they would have no issue, they don't care, it's just not what their tactics are. The notion they've got any moral position is non existent.”
Sir Hugh’s comments follow a spate of attacks on PSNI officers from dissidents within the past year.
In separate incidents last November two police officers were shot and wounded in gun attacks in Dungannon and Londonderry.
Dissidents also admitted responsibility for an attempted bomb attack on a police patrol in County Fermanagh in June.
And in May an off-duty officer was injured in a booby-trap car explosion as he travelled to work in Co Tyrone.
However, Sir Hugh said that police had a “reasonable grip” on the terrorists and had counted a number of recent successes against them.
“They are badly disrupted by our activity, over 40 arrested this year on various operations,” he said.
The Chief Constable also said that while the PSNI believes the IRA Army Council still exists, he added that he believed “with absolute certainty” that the Provisional IRA was not engaged in terrorist activity.
The groups behind Omagh and other atrocities are “currently at the top end” of their recent activity, Sir Hugh said in an interview.
But he said the Real IRA and other dissident groups are undergoing their “death throes” — which makes them even more dangerous for the immediate future.
And in a wide-ranging interview, he confirmed that the PSNI believes the IRA Army Council still exists, a position that the IMC is expected to back up next month.
But he said “with absolute certainty that the Provos are not engaged in any terrorist activity”.
He also warned that Al Qaida would like to strike in the UK at a “level of awfulness that we haven't even conceived of yet”, but could switch tactics to low level attacks.
And Sir Hugh said that Northern Ireland cannot assume that it would be left off the target list.
The Chief Constable — frequently considered a favourite to be the next Metropolitan Police Commissioner — also indicated the he intends to serve out the remaining two years of his contract. “I have no current plans to go anywhere,” he said.
Sir Hugh said dissident republicans remain his primary concern.
“All the indications are they want to kill police,” he said. “What's quite interesting is the determination of cops not to be put off what they are doing. It's consistent.
“The Police Federation has been very clear: ‘We weren't frightened 30 years ago, we're not going to be frightened of these people now’.”
But he continued: “You have to be mindful of the risk.”
Sir Hugh said: “We are seeing dissident republicans currently at the top end of activity in my experience here.
“For up to a year now I've been saying my major concern is dissident republicans.
“But as in the history of the past we don't know everything. And as a consequence of quite determined attempts to kill police officers in four incidents show they have some capability and some capacity.
“All the indications are they want to kill police. There is no intelligence at all to suggest they want to currently kill anyone other than police. If innocent ordinary people get in the way they would have no issue, they don't care, it's just not what their tactics are. The notion they've got any moral position is non existent.”
Sir Hugh said the dissidents do not have “large numbers”. “They are not hugely organised. They are badly disrupted by our activity, over 40 arrested this year on various operations. They are badly disrupted by Garda activity, very successful operations and arrests in the south, and badly disrupted by MI5 activity and arrests in places like Lithuania — absolutely critical to the peace in Northern Ireland.
“We've got a reasonable grip on them. We are determined to deal with them.”
He said the dissidents are trying to recruit “young disenfranchised people who are seeking something to do in life that gives them a sort of awful credibility.
“They want to recruit more people and they see killing cops as a way of recruiting more people.
“The people they are recruiting are hugely vulnerable young people who, I suspect, more competent groups wouldn't want to touch with a barge pole. Again it doesn't make them less dangerous. Sometimes it makes them more dangerous.
“They are in their death throes is how I've described it. These are people who have no political philosophy. Their successes to date, what they've achieved; they've killed five or six people from their own community in the last couple of years so they've murdered their own people and they've tried to murder police officers.
“How that gets them any political objective is doomed. What they're doing is trying to terrify their own people to commit organised crime on their own behalf, so these are selfish people committing crime to benefit themselves and flying under a flag of convenience. It's no more and no less than that.
“I think there will come a point in time where people have just got so sick of them. We see that. But the end game is always going to be messy and this is one of those.”
Earlier this month the Government asked the Independent Monitoring Commission to produce a special report on the state of the IRA as one way of shaking loose the Sinn Fein-DUP stand-off over the transfer of justice powers to Stormont.
Sir Hugh, whose officers brief the IMC, confirmed that the Provisionals' Army Council has not disbanded — a key DUP issue for progress.
But he said the Provos are not involved in terrorism.
“There is no evidence to say it's disbanded,” Sir Hugh said. “No one has gone public to say the Army Council has gone away. So it's right to assume it still exists.
“What I can say with absolute certainty is that in terms of PIRA activity, that is to say terrorist activity, it's not happening.
“Does it mean all the Provos have gone into nine to five jobs? Of course it doesn't. There are some involved in organised crime, without a doubt, but operating as individuals not operating as an organisation, and I think that's the key distinguishing factor.
“On the other side of course, it must be hugely frustrating to those who don't have that confidence. It's easy to deny if someone is killed by someone who is inextricably linked to Provos for someone to say it wasn't authorised. It's quite an easy thing to say.
“So I can understand. I think the unionist community are going to look for a lot more than just a statement that PIRA have gone away before they are satisfied — but we are not seeing activity.”
But he indicated that Northern Ireland could still be a target for international terrorists.
“Let's not forget one of the first convictions for an international terrorist offence was (Abbas) Boutrab here,” he said.
“So we have to make sure that Northern Ireland does not feel too comfortable and think we are not in the loop. We've an international land border here which no other police force in the UK has.”