Time for dissidents to engage in war of words
There is no security solution to the threat posed by renegade republicans; sooner or later the talking will have to start. But will anyone be listening, asks Brian Rowan
Talking - if it happens - won't be easy for any side; for those close to the dissident groups, or those trying to persuade them that there is a different way.
In the past few days there has been another surge of activity, including a car-bomb attack and the targeting of a woman police officer and a soldier.
It fits into a pattern described by a senior PSNI officer as "infrequent, but persistent".
There are periods when you see the dissident groups, and other times when you don't.
The under-car booby-trap device used to target an army major in Bangor has thrown up "a different signature" - a bomb construction different from the one used in east Belfast almost a year ago, when the partner of a police officer had a lucky escape.
It suggests another bomb-maker at work in this war-play in which the Real and Continuity IRA organisations and Oglaigh na hEireann are the main actors.
Gerry Adams calls them the 'Alphabet IRA' - there are so many groups, most of them with splinter factions. But they are dangerous.
The Bangor device was made from commercial explosives and the level of activity is at its highest in more than a decade - since the bombing campaign that marked the emergence of the Real IRA and linked 32 County Sovereignty Committee in late 1997-early 1998.
Sinn Fein wants to talk to all these groups, but that is easier said than done.
Talking, no matter how privately or quietly, will be seen by some on all sides as a sign of weakness.
And the more of this that is out in the open, the more difficult it will become.
Language - choice of words - is also important. In a radio interview, Secretary of State Owen Paterson talked about smoking them out. "We will only beat them as a team effort," he said.
All of that has been said and heard before. It doesn't work.
Former Prime Minister John Major once told us that it would turn his stomach to talk to republicans, while secretly the Security Service - MI5 - was involved in 'back-channel' contacts with the IRA leadership.
There are no security solutions. These things never end in military victory or defeat. They have to be talked through, however unpalatable that is.
The question is: are the dissident groups prepared to listen?
Listen to the type of analysis recently outlined by Bobby Storey, one of the most senior figures in the IRA's war.
This is what he wrote in the republican newspaper An Phoblacht: "The IRA carried out an effective, sustained military campaign against British forces with the active support of republicans - with large numbers of disciplined volunteers and a level of international support and financial backing that will not be forthcoming in today's circumstances ...
"So, how is a much smaller military force, lacking the strength, skills, discipline and support the IRA had, going to achieve more than the IRA?
"These [dissident] groups need to understand that there is zero chance of drawing significant numbers of people back into conflict."
Those dissidents groups were at play in the recent street violence over the Twelfth period - situations that present a huge challenge for new policing.
A year ago, I'm told, the police came close to using lethal force. They had someone "red-dotted".
Such action - however justifiable in life-threatening circumstances - would allow the dissidents to argue that nothing has changed, that the PSNI is the RUC in different uniform.
There is another question. Who are the dissidents at war with? Is it 'the Brits', to use their language, or is it Adams and McGuinness?
Just read the responses from some to the offer of dialogue. Des Dalton, of Republican Sinn Fein, said: "Gerry Adams and his organisation are now fully absorbed into the apparatus of British rule in Ireland and we feel we have absolutely nothing to say to them on that basis."
Dalton's Republican Sinn Fein is associated with the Continuity IRA; an organisation, security sources say, which is "going through a convulsion" - a reference to a split in which a faction identified with 'prolific, non-stop' criminality has emerged in Belfast.
"There is no war here and no interest in war," was how one republican described this faction. Republican Sinn Fein has distanced itself from this particular group in Belfast and in all that is happening you see the mish-mash of factions that are out there representing all sorts of interests, both personal and organisational. Trying to get all of them - or most of them - into a room and into a dialogue will be a huge challenge. But this is not just down to republicans.
In the lead up to the 1994 IRA ceasefire, there were those 'back-channel' contacts involving the British and the republican leadership; John Hume was holding private talks with Adams; Taoiseach Albert Reynolds was involved in an initiative; influential Irish-Americans were engaged and so, too, were church figures and others.
The talking is for everyone. It may not work, but, given the threat to life on the streets, it would be a bigger shock if people weren't trying.