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Knee-jerk reactions to the dissidents solve nothing

There is a lot for the police to think about after the grenade attack on officers in west Belfast. But this is not just about the PSNI - it is about something much bigger.

The armed faction behind the attack wanted to kill - and kill for a purpose. It is about getting a reaction - both security and political - that damages the peace process.

In that dissident republican world, the armed faction Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) now poses the most serious threat.

In recent days, its leaders outlined their thinking in a face-to-face interview with this newspaper. And they do not recognise new policing - the era of the PSNI which followed the RUC.

"Policing in the north is still controlled by national security MI5," a member of its so-called 'army council' said. "Everything that the RUC did - the abuse, harassment and frame-ups - still continues today."

At police headquarters, they are already working on the counter-narrative - Chief Constable Matt Baggott is still determined to deliver what he describes as personal policing. He knows that means not overreacting to what happened in that attack in west Belfast a few days ago when a hand-grenade was tossed at three officers responding to a robbery at a bookmakers shop.

Oglaigh na hEireann is targeting both the policing and political arrangements that have developed since the Good Friday Agreement; believing Stormont stands on weak foundations and will be easy to undermine.

Oglaigh na hEireann may well see the PSNI as a soft target - a police service more and more made up of officers who have no experience of the 'war'; young men and women who thought all of that was over.

The bomb under Constable Peadar Heffron's car, that grenade spitting shrapnel in west Belfast a few days ago - both are ugly reminders of the threat that still exists. Dissident republicans will play on all the vulnerability of new policing; prey on those softer targets of peace. And what can the police do?

Next time there is an incident, send more officers. More officers with rifles covering more corners. And ONH will sit back and admire the war-type security environment its intermittent attacks are creating.

What is happening cannot be fixed in a security response. Sinn Fein brought the vast majority of the republican community with it on this road to peace and the IRA - at what is called a general army convention - cleared the path for that walk towards new policing. That move - more than any other - said their war was over.

Now there is another challenge for mainstream republican leaders: not only to say that they are prepared to talk to dissidents, but to learn how to speak to them. They won't be dismissed in the language of 'micro groups', 'traitors' or 'conflict junkies'.

"The more people minimise them, the more they have to make a point," a senior unionist politician said, when he contacted me after this newspaper published that recent interview with Oglaigh na hEireann.

ONH is the group behind the Palace Barracks bomb, the bomb on the Strand Road in Derry, the attempt to kill Peadar Heffron, the targeting of an Army major and a police dog handler before that recent grenade attack.

"It's very targeted," the unionist politician said. "The target selection is very careful."

It is precise and it has that purpose of trying to undermine everything: peace, politics and policing. And that is why the responses have to be joined-up.

It can't just be about more police and more rifles.

What is needed is something more than that; something different, some thinking outside the box.