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Intelligence failings hand initiative to the dissidents

Inadequate security resources combined with inferior intelligence-gathering have put us where we are now - at the mercy of small bands of republican paramilitaries who once again hold local communities to ransom.

If the planned mortar attack on Keady police station last Friday didn't amply illustrate the shortcomings of current security provision, with pedestrians and vehicles left to squeeze past a bomb-laden van, then surely Monday's attack in Newry does.

Speaking in the Assembly yesterday, UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy accused Chief Constable Matt Baggott and his senior staff of "complacency" in their handling of the renewed dissident threat.

But, in reality, Matt Baggott has inherited, rather than created, the security situation he finds himself tasked to combat. What he will be judged on is how he leads his force through the undoubted terrorist-related challenges that lie ahead.

We were told yesterday by Chief Superintendent Alasdair Robinson - the officer in command of 'E' Division - that an additional 250 officers have been returned to active duty since the Chief Constable's arrival and his review of the administration he inherited.

It's a welcome start to the reorganisation that the PSNI clearly needs to cope with the dangerous challenges that lie ahead of its - in many cases - inexperienced officers.

One of Matt Baggott's senior lieutenants and advisers, Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, yesterday bemoaned the fact that the mere 17 minutes officers were given to reach the area and clear it of civilians was utterly inadequate.

But the harsh reality is that the scenario is likely to be repeated again in a relatively short period of time - and the bombers are indifferent to the carnage they could cause.

They didn't care at Omagh in 1998 that their misleading warnings resulted in men, women and children being shepherded towards the powerful device that would claim 29 lives and those of unborn twins.

The reality that we have to grasp as a society is that the honeymoon period with the dud dissident car-bombs and the 'jarked' (compromised) dissident car-bombs is over for good.

We are all now, for the foreseeable future, at risk in some way from the bomb-maker who successfully constructed Monday night's bomb and his associates.

Quite obviously he knows what he is doing, has access to all the materials he needs around the border area and can assemble unhindered viable devices that will do the job the dissidents propose.

In a fortnight's time, the Assembly's 108 MLAs will have the choice of deciding whether it is prudent at this juncture to devolve policing and justice powers from London.

Sinn Fein craves the transfer, while the DUP needs the support of the Ulster Unionists in the division lobby to make it happen.

It won't have escaped the dissidents' notice that a couple of explosions around Northern Ireland over the next fortnight might cause sceptics in the DUP ranks - never mind the UUP fold - to seek to defer that decision.

At the very least, a plethora of dissident bombs devastating town centres will rack up the cost to the Exchequer and eat into the £1bn Gordon Brown has promised to ease the economic burden of the policing and justice transfer.

Of course, if the PSNI was to achieve stunning successes against dissident republicans over the next fortnight, by uncovering weapons hides and bomb-making materials, then Sir Reg Empey and Danny Kennedy might be prepared to urge party colleagues to troop in behind the DUP on the sound of the division bell on March 9.

Sinn Fein has promoted the analysis that the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont would prove a major setback for the dissidents - although this is hardly a compelling argument.

Will the dissidents really disappear whence they came at the thought of Alliance Party leader David Ford getting on their case? Unlikely, you might think.

The compelling argument might be that a transfer of such powers would lead to greater administrative cohesion, more effective legal processes, a quicker response to rectify shortcomings in practical law and beneficial cost-savings to the taxpayer.

Instead, the policing and justice argument has now become entangled in the parading issue, which suits the dissidents, and embroiled in partisan political argument over Sinn Fein's suitability to hold ministerial position.

If Sinn Fein doesn't have policing and justice in the bag by April 12, as promised in the Hillsborough Deal, will more erstwhile Provisionals offer their expertise to the dissidents, as indicated in the recent IMC report?

The core of the problem facing the PSNI and the Security Service (MI5) is the shallow depth and the obviously inadequate extent of penetration of the various dissident republican groups that are currently active.

In 2004, when Hugh Orde and his senior command, some of whom remain around Matt Baggott, elected to jettison 20% to 25% of its agents inside paramilitary organisations, they took an enormous, and perhaps unjustifiable, gamble.

A few months later, the IRA carried out the Northern Bank robbery and the unedifying scramble of trying to re-sign ditched agents ensued. What damage that period in the history of intelligence-gathering here caused the efficacy of the counter-terrorist strategy may never be divulged.

But we may today be witnessing the consequences of that blunder. There is, of course, no way the dissidents will win this battle. Not only will the British and Irish Governments seek to thwart them, the mainstream republican leadership will, too.

None of those elements can afford to allow the dissidents to succeed - and there is little likelihood that they will.

What they can do, however, is endure for a considerable time to come - as they have proven since the Omagh bombing.

At this juncture - as Newry proved - they also appear to have perfected their car-bomb technology and evaded whatever surveillance has been directed at them.

Bringing them to the point of submission will require a more penetrating security strategy than the failed one Matt Baggott inherited.