Magazine article The Spectator

Terrorism Is Back in Northern Ireland

Magazine article The Spectator

Terrorism Is Back in Northern Ireland

Article excerpt

Paul Bew says that the young police recruits in the province now find themselves facing the sort of armed confrontations they assumed were a thing of the past

Even the dissidents have now spawned their own heavily armed dissidents. The bomb defused by army experts at Forkhill this week was the work not of the Real IRA but one of its own breakaway groups, Oglaigh na hEireann.

The bomb was bigger than the Real IRA bomb in Omagh which killed unborn twins, six men, 12 women and 11 children. It brings into sharp relief the problems now facing the security services.

Another illustration of these problems came last month. In the village of Meigh in south Armagh, near the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a police car encountered seven heavily armed terrorists - they even had a rocket launcher with them - operating a vehicle checkpoint and handing out leaflets telling locals not to co-operate with the security services. The police, who were lightly armed - and, it was later rumoured, undertrained in firearm use - beat a hasty retreat. As one website put it, 'PSNI patrol flees from Real IRA roadblock'. To make matters worse, within a few days of the incident, a leaked internal Police Service of Northern Ireland report appeared which was severely critical of the functioning of the organisation.

Both events have combined to contribute to a certain jumpiness in the public mood.

The authorities respond somewhat wearily, pointing out that no one ever believed that the Belfast Agreement meant the absolute end of Republican terrorism in Ireland. The prompt action of the police in Meigh prevented civilian casualties, they say. And even in the old days, RUC patrols did on occasion back away from confrontation with armed republicans. Naturally, many of the pensioned-off members of the RUC take a different view.

As for the leaked report, the official version is that it was merely the outcome of tough, shrewd self-criticism, in anticipation of the arrival of a new chief constable of the PSNI to replace Sir Hugh Orde. Sir Hugh has just completed his seven-year stint, during which time he has seen the Catholic percentage of the force rise from 8 to just under 30, and Sinn Fein take its seats on the policing boards of the province.

The fact remains, however, that significant UK intelligence resources - originally intended to deal with other international threats - have been shifted back to Northern Ireland. Only Islamist terrorism receives more attention from the security services. The recent arrest of the Irish republican Michael Campbell, currently in jail in Lithuania after allegedly offering undercover British agents £8,000 for arms - has also set off alarm bells.

The community style of policing currently favoured by the PSNI may also have to be abandoned if more constables are murdered, as Stephen Carroll was earlier this year, in the course of investigating an apparent domestic dispute. But the very last thing the government wants is a return to a more traditional style of policing: still less, the return of the army to the streets of the province.

One thing is already clear: young PSNI recruits, who have been trained in arguably the most sophisticated human rights policing culture in the world, find themselves facing challenges which they had imagined to be a thing of the past. Of course, the dissidents remain weak in terms of absolute numbers, and their political support groups - of which eirigi ('For a Socialist Republic') is the most impressive - do not yet have anything remotely approaching the credibility of the AdamsMcGuinness leadership of Sinn Fein.

This is the nub of the matter. The British government believes that as long as Adams and McGuinness's position is bolstered, the dissident's radical Republican ideology will have limited appeal. This is why the Northern Ireland Office is so desperate to see the devolution of policing and justice to Northern Ireland as the final instalments on the payments due to the Sinn Fein leadership for its part in the peace process. …

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