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Renegade republicans remain on the margins

A recent report authored by the English academic Martyn Frampton, The Return of the Militants, makes the alarming claim that the threat from IRA dissidents in Northern Ireland "is now at its greatest level in over a decade", while the PSNI and MI5 are unequipped, both in terms of resources and skill-sets, to deal with it.

It follows a warning given in September by MI5 chief Jonathan Evans that dissidents could soon mount attacks in England - a fear that prompted the threat-level presented by Irish groups to be raised from 'moderate' to 'substantial', just one rung on the scale below al-Qaida.

Dr Frampton's report - published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College, London - concludes that, while the dissidents are growing in strength and violent capacity, the ability of the security forces to respond is curbed by an intelligence gap created by the emasculation of the former RUC Special Branch and MI5's dependence on an under-resourced and inexperienced PSNI.

It would be foolish to understate the potential of the dissidents to cause death and destruction. Clearly, there are people in these groups with the skill, experience, determination and wherewithal to cause serious violence. Successful attacks, such as that outside MI5's Holywood base in April, are evidence of that.

But, equally, it would be wrong to overstate or exaggerate their potential. The threat from dissidents was actually much greater in 1998 than it is now.

However, the Omagh bombing broke apart a powerful coalition of three republican groups opposed to the Provisionals and the years since then have seen even more fragmentation as well as tactical and ideological disagreement amongst republicans who oppose the peace process.

The recent burst of dissident violence can be traced to Sinn Fein's acceptance of the PSNI, but even so it pales in comparison to the Provisional IRA's violence.

The last security force fatalities caused by dissidents were in March 2009, some 20 months ago, and so far in 2010, no policemen or soldiers have been killed.

Dr Frampton produces some 12 pages of dissident-linked incidents since 2009 to support his case, but closer examination reveals a preponderance of punishment shootings, hoax bomb-warnings and bombs that failed to detonate - always an indicator of possible security force infiltration. The violence committed by dissidents in the last two years could easily fit into a two or three-week period when the Provisionals were active.

Dr Frampton's assessment of the intelligence deficit is especially worth scrutiny. It is not true to imply, as he does, that MI5 "relies on others", such as the PSNI, for intelligence.

MI5 has always had agents 'in the field' and, in the past, competed fiercely with the RUC and the Army to recruit and run the best-placed agents in the various paramilitary groups. After all, whoever controlled the best sources ruled the roost in that strange, dark world.

Dr Frampton has also read the same document that I have which contains an assessment of the extent to which the Provisional IRA was infiltrated by British intelligence in the last years of its campaign. That evaluation was made by one of the most highly-placed, authoritative sources in the field and, while neither he nor I are at liberty to disclose the details, the extent of penetration was so staggeringly great that it raises valid questions about who was really running the IRA at the end: the British or the Army Council?

Are we to suppose, as Dr Frampton infers, that these agents simply disappeared into thin air when the IRA quit the field? To the contrary, the odds that many stayed on the books, ready when needed to be reactivated to join the dissidents, and that not a few are, as I write, burrowing their way into their leaderships, have to be high. Hence, perhaps, those bombs that failed to go off.

The greatest flaw in Dr Frampton's analysis, however, lies in his failure to understand that the engine which sustained the Provisionals is not available to the dissidents.

It is true, as he says, that the Provisionals and the dissidents share a detestation of the partition settlement of 1921, but it is not that which kept the Provisionals going for some 30 years.

What nourished them was the support of a sizable number of Catholics who believed it was impossible to ever get a square deal within the Northern Ireland state.

But no longer. The Good Friday and St Andrews agreements have rehabilitated the tactic of reform for the vast bulk of Catholics and banished revolution; they have exchanged an Irish republic for power-sharing at Stormont and, in a serious rebuff of dissidents, a police force that is one-third Catholic.

The truth is that the dissidents cannot rely upon the support of enough of the nationalist community to sustain a meaningful campaign of violence and, in this regard, they more closely resemble the failed border campaign of 1956-1962 than a continuation of the Provisionals.

Warnings to the contrary given by Dr Frampton, and others of a like mind, should be taken with a large pinch of salt.