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Success in the 'secret war' is best way to stem terror

The devastating attack on Constable Peadar Heffron may have been overshadowed by 'Robinsongate', but its potential ramifications should not be underestimated.

In one calculated terrorist act dissident republicans demonstrated their lethal capability and cut down one of the faces of the new police image - a fluent Irish-speaking officer steeped in GAA tradition.

Capable of killing, the device attached to the underside of the popular officer's car has far-reaching implications for the security of all PSNI officers.

Like the undercar bomb attack in east Belfast in October, no hint of its likely presence was detected by MI5 or the PSNI.

The frank admission by one senior PSNI officer that no intelligence information indicating that an attack on Constable Heffron was imminent underlines the bleak task facing the head of MI5 here and the Chief Constable.

Critics will say that two decades of intelligence-gathering fieldcraft was tossed away during the formative years of the PSNI as highly experienced intelligence-gatherers and agent-handlers were invited to make their exit from police ranks.

Whatever, Matt Baggott has no swift intelligence solution to the dissident threat and insufficient feet on the ground to impede what was the obvious free movement of a terrorist cell to Randalstown to attack Peadar Heffron.

The suggestion being floated in security circles now is that an immediate response to combat the growing threat from dissident republican elements will involve more units of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment being drafted into Northern Ireland to track the movements of identified activists in Antrim and Belfast.

The SRR's presence along the border reportedly helped to stop dissidents involved in an attempt before Christmas to kill a Catholic trainee police officer - the type of young candidate from a GAA background who would have seen the path cleared for him by Peadar Heffron.

His critical injuries might now deter potential nationalist applicants from enlisting, which is one of the objectives of the dissidents. The PSNI points out that so far that hasn't happened and highlights the healthy volume of applicants from the Catholic/nationalist community to join the force during the last recruiting exercise.

But the loss of more than 300 serving and trainee PSNI officers through resignation over the last five years is a worrying haemorrhaging that could accelerate if officers with Constable Heffron's high-profile nationalist/GAA background are specifically targeted.

However important, all the condemnation heaped upon the terrorists who inflicted the severe injuries on the popular Co Antrim policeman won't deter them from their heinous campaign - only the undermining of their organisations will achieve that.

Without the footprint on the ground to intercept daily every vehicle used by the dissidents and check the identities of the occupants, the Chief Constable will be praying that a significant intelligence breakthrough is in the offing.

He declined on Monday to respond to the suggestion that perhaps the bomb - believed planted by terror group Oglaigh na hEireann - that seriously injured his officer was detonated remotely by electronic means.

The remedy of checking under a potential target vehicle every morning doesn't always work because people, even police officers, become complacent, and clever concealment can sometimes trick the eye.

A relatively cheap electronic device based on detecting a change in a vehicle's magnetic field will identify the presence of a magnet attachment to a car, but to embark on the acquisition and fitting of units to every PSNI officer's car would be a negative signal that Matt Baggott would be loath to transmit.

However, it may be prudent - and ultimately prove life-saving - to attach these detection units to the vehicles of police officers who may be identified as more vulnerable or more high-profile within the nationalist community as Peadar Heffron obviously is.

In the short-term, that may prove a wise precaution.