The Dissident Republican Problem in Northern Ireland

In early September 2009, a fertiliser-based bomb at Forkhill, in South Armagh, was found to be bigger than the device detonated in Omagh in 1998 where twenty-nine people died. The command wire led from the bomb, across the border to a firing point in the Republic of Ireland. Unlike the Omagh device, this one, fortunately, did not go off – a sign Republican dissidents may not be as efficient bomb-makers as their predecessors. But it was a frightening reminder that although they are small in number and more criminal than ideological in method, they still have the capacity to inflict fatalities, undermine the fragile but successful peace process, and exploit the deep-rooted sectarianism which festers below the surface in Northern Ireland. Preventing this is the immediate challenge for the authorities.

Grounds for Optimism

Six months ago, when Republican dissidents murdered two soldiers and a police officer, RUSI’s analysis was that these were horrendous incidents, final spasms in the endgame of the ‘Troubles’, but incidents which would neither derail the relatively new-found peace nor the onward political march towards fuller devolution. Today, there are still grounds for optimism – even though dissident activity is, if anything, marginally worse right now. The murders have not upset the political process nor brought down the governing assembly. But there is a lot at stake.

Belfast has changed dramatically in the past decade. Commercial airlines fly almost into the heart of the city. Gone are the soldiers in their armoured vehicles patrolling the streets, the security guards checking people entering shops and offices. The black taxis which once ferried only the locals into notorious Loyalist or Republican enclaves now ferry in tourists from around the world to view the sites of problems past and murals which depict allegiances and log the history of the ‘Troubles’. In the grounds of the City Hall, a Ferris wheel operates and big international chain stores and hotels have opened in a city which previously had few.

One place though that has not changed much is the police headquarters in east Belfast, with its conclave of concrete buildings surrounded by barbed wire and CCTV cameras. Visitors leave their vehicles at a distance and are accompanied up to the front door on foot. Inside, those most vulnerable to attack work behind a heavy metal door, which few have access to and only then by code. Not surprisingly, as the officer tasked with dealing with the dissidents, Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Drew Harris is one of these people. He began his career in the early 1980s as a constable in two of Northern Ireland’s most active terrorist hotspots – Belfast and Armagh. For the past year he has been assistant chief constable in charge of the Crime Operations Department where he is responsible for police intelligence gathering, major crime and terrorism. He makes no secret of his concern at the level of activity by dissident terrorists, and sees little sign that their will or their numbers have been dented in the past six months:

We can’t ignore what’s happened. They’re using very large explosive devices for example and that has an impact. Policing the community becomes difficult. They want these attacks to drive us away from a community model of policing. They don’t want us patrolling near the border in places like Armagh. They recognise almost 28 per cent of the Police Service here is Catholic now and they don’t like any of that. They don’t like a local service delivery and they’re trying to create division between the police and the community.

The threat level from Republican dissidents rose from Moderate to Severe just before the murders earlier this year, and while there is not the volume of incidents of decades ago because there are fewer forays across republican and loyalist boundaries, what attacks there are are often highly dangerous – three murders, unexploded bombs, and numerous other attempts to intimidate, kill and injure officers.

New Weapon Routes

Intelligence suggests there are between 200-300 dissidents. Most split from the Provisional IRA when it called a permanent ceasefire, though there are some new recruits from younger, disaffected Republican communities. Worryingly, they still have access to weapons. Some are leftovers which were never decommissioned when the Provisional IRA declared its final ceasefire, presumably because only the dissidents remembered where some of the weapon stashes were. But there are new rifles too, smuggled in with cannabis and counterfeit cigarettes from places like Africa and South America. Police believe the dissidents are heavily involved in criminal activity.

How Sectarianism Feeds the Dissidents

There was a time when some Republican dissident groups considered following Sinn Féin down the constitutional route. But they dropped this idea when Sinn Féin politicians joined the police watchdog authority – the Police Board – and became involved in local policing. They did not like to see hardened republicans working with, not against, the police. Yet their campaign of violence has not undermined the political process as they hoped it would – it has not put an end to plans for devolved policing and justice – or prevented loyalist decommissioning. And on top of this some of the dissidents, including some leaders, have been arrested.

That is why senior officers such as ACC Harris believe the problem is containable. What is more, he does not see any emotional drive for a sustained campaign or any wide public support for the dissidents in the light of the type of attacks they have launched in recent months:

Our young people haven’t had the whole thing of the Troubles – it’s not in their psyche. People have been genuinely shocked by what they’re doing. There’s a whole section of our society including most teenage children for example, who were totally aghast – they’ve never known this before – they thought this type of thing was long consigned to the past.

The fact that many people do not remember the Troubles brings hope on another front – that of festering sectarianism, which both feeds the dissidents and is exploited by them. ‘Children don’t hear half the stuff I would have heard when I was a young person’ says ACC Harris: ‘it’s not the overt sectarianism there was once. People now recognise it as a bad thing and I’m not sure they did before, and therefore people see a need to tackle it. But that requires work from the politicians at the top.’

Yet a long-awaited joint strategy on cohesion, sharing and integration has not materialised, despite pressure from the police and others in Northern Ireland. It is clear the political parties cannot agree a joint way forward. This despite the fact most schools and many businesses remain segregated – and many people still live among their own – whether Catholic or Protestant, Loyalist or Republican. The last census in 2001 suggested there was more, not less, segregation than a decade earlier.

The Difficulty of Gaining Intelligence

Nevertheless, while the politicians appear to have slowed down on this, there is evidence that the general public is increasingly engaged. After the murder of Police Constable Stephen Carroll earlier this year, it was surprising how much information the public came forward with. People were even prepared to sign witness statements which would be published in court – something which has historically been difficult to achieve in Northern Ireland because of a culture of witness intimidation.

Progress against dissident terrorists inevitably relies on receiving reliable intelligence. In Northern Ireland the police used to take the lead in intelligence-gathering, although that role passed to MI5 two years ago, in keeping with the rest of the UK.

Nevertheless, the police still rely on information from agents – though not to the extent they did at the height of the Troubles. Almost a quarter of informants were cancelled in 2003 according to a report published in January 2007 by the then-police ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Nuala O’Loan. One former senior Special Branch officer in Northern Ireland, who does not want to be named, says that the agents were ‘let go’ amidst mounting concern about the extent of criminality amongst some of them and the degree to which police were in collusion. But he believes as a result of cancelling so many, information about the dissidents from insiders may no longer be as forthcoming as it used to be – hence the difficulty in tracking them and bringing them to justice.

Nevertheless, ACC Harris, who is in charge of the current intelligence-gathering operation at Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), believes it is working effectively – though perhaps at times more slowly than he would like. Unlike law enforcement agencies elsewhere, PSNI intelligence-gathering, whether it concerns petty crime or terrorism, all comes under one roof. The thinking is that in Northern Ireland where the entire population is 1.7 million, a petty criminal is likely to be moving in the same local underworld as a terrorist. So any information passed to an intelligence officer dealing, for example, with burglary on the ground would go straight on to colleagues in the same department working on counter-terrorism. ACC Harris says: ‘We don’t have multiple law enforcement agencies like in the US and Canada – how do you share intelligence that way? Here, the intelligence gathering for everything comes to me. Small is beautiful – we have small number of people and small geographic area and it’s a strength, a one-stop-shop.’

Using Laws and Agreements to Fight Terrorism

There are other reasons why the police are optimistic they can remain on top of the dissident problem. Fighting dissident terrorists who nip across the border into the Republic of Ireland has become easier because the peace process has established better links. Unlike most European Union countries, the UK is not a signatory of the Shengen Agreement, which mandates for the removal of border controls between participating countries. Border formalities still officially exist between the North and South.

Now political agreements mean that if there is an incident spanning the two countries, both nations’ police meet up and decide who has the best evidence. If appropriate, they can even decide which country to arrest and prosecute a suspect in. In future, the PSNI would like to see even more sharing – of fingerprint and DNA databases for example.

Last year a Belfast man was tried in Dublin for a crime committed in the North. Elsewhere in the UK, this could not happen: in most cases the law dictates suspects should be returned to the scene of the crime.

There are new laws encouraging those involved in terrorism to turn Queen’s Evidence and testify against other perpetrators. And longer detention rules allowing terrorist suspects to be held for up to twenty-eight days without charge is giving more time for police to gather intelligence (although these laws are currently being challenged in the courts in Northern Ireland).

There are political moves afoot which could undermine the terrorists – not least plans drawing close to fruition to devolve policing and justice so that it is controlled not by Westminster, but by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many believe dissident support would wane if this area was controlled not by politicians in London, but by local politicians including former IRA supporters through Sinn Féin.

Dissident Republicans have proved surprisingly hard to break. Their profile and levels of activity are not, at present, decreasing. The authorities are well aware that one political assassination or one bomb causing large loss of life could rock the boat substantially. But so far they are not running out of control. The threat remains high – but it has not broken the peace. If that is to remain the case, tackling their criminal and terrorist activities is vital – but devolving police and justice, and tackling sectarianism with long-term strategies will also be critical.

Margaret Gilmore
Senior Research Fellow

The interviews in this article were conducted by the author in Northern Ireland in 2009.

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