Will militant splinter groups fill IRA vacuum?

THe Irish Republican Army vowed to disarm last month, but terror experts cite threat from splinter groups.

Not long after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) made its historic pledge to disarm last month, a taxi driver was reportedly hijacked and forced to drive his bomb-laden car toward a police station.

The driver abandoned the car about a quarter-mile away from the station, and army technicians defused the bomb. But the grim incident was blamed on breakaway republicans, and has renewed concern that diehard militants would continue fighting for a united Ireland.

The IRA, blamed for killing nearly 1,800 people since 1969, declared last month that it had ended its armed struggle against British control of Northern Ireland, fueling hope that a lasting peace had finally come to the province.

Some, however, worry that a new group could break away, as the Real IRA did in 1998 while the landmark Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, or that IRA militants would drift to splinter groups. Irish republican fringe groups have shown no signs of following the IRA's lead and renouncing violence.

"This has always been the threat to the peace process, because the physical force tradition in Ireland and the republican tradition are inextricably intertwined," says Tim Pat Coogan, Irish author of "The IRA." "To those few republicans, this is a betrayal, just as when Michael Collins signed the treaty in 1921 that set up the Irish state and partitioned the island. They'll figure that they now have to go it alone, though they don't have any widespread support."

Lower tolerance for terrorism

As the world's tolerance for terrorism of any kind evaporated after the Sept. 11 attacks, Europe's long-running rebellions have sputtered. More than 700 Basque separatists are reportedly in Spanish jails, from which some former rebel leaders have issued calls for an end to the violence.

And on the turbulent French-ruled island of Corsica, turnout at this summer's annual nationalist festival was light, and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political ally, which has supported the Basque and Corsican movements, was a no-show.

Despite their increasing marginalization, just a handful of militants can wreak havoc on societies emerging from decades of conflict and prolong the slow transition to normality, analysts warn.

Irish republican breakaway groups are small and riddled with informers, but remain potentially destructive. In 1998, the Real IRA exploded a car bomb in the small town of Omagh, killing 29 people.

The veterans of such groups know no other way of life, and they can attract aimless young men who see no escape from Ulster's widespread poverty, says Michael Gallagher, leader of an Omagh victims' group. "They are still very dangerous people, and continue to recruit low- achieving people who see this as a way to become powerful," he says.

Unlike in Northern Ireland, bombs still explode in Basque country and Corsica, though more recently they have been timed to avoid any deaths. ETA, the Basque terror group accused of killing about 800 people in the past three decades, has not been blamed for a murder in two years. And while Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has apparently outmaneuvered IRA militants opposed to disarmament, ETA and its political ally, Batasuna, are mired in a power struggle between militants and the politically minded, says Paddy Woodworth, an Irish author who regularly travels through Basque country.

"There's a real desire among Batasuna voters for a peace process similar to Northern Ireland's," says Woodworth, author of "Dirty War, Clean Hands," a book about the Basque rebellion. "The IRA, however reluctantly, has been dragged kicking and screaming forward to the negotiating table."

The Spanish Congress has given Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero the go-ahead to negotiate with ETA - if it declares a cease-fire.

In Corsica, where rebels assassinated French governor Claude Erignac in 1998, militants have splintered into several groups. Although support for violence has declined, separatists don't agree on whether their struggle for independence should be peaceful.

Adams, who called for the IRA to become solely political in April, seriously considered the threat of a split, analysts say. The Real IRA wasn't the first group to break away on Adams' watch - the Continuity IRA formed after Sinn Fein ended its boycott of the Irish Parliament in 1986. Republican Sinn Fein, the radical political party that broke away during the same period, is allegedly allied with the Continuity IRA, and has condemned the IRA's vow to disarm as a betrayal.

Protestant supporters of pro-British loyalist paramilitaries, which have also shown no sign of disarming, say they provide protection against republican fringe groups. Loyalist paramilitaries have been blamed for a string of attacks on Catholic homes and churches around the Protestant heartland town of Ballymena.

New attacks

The attacks began earlier this month after republicans paraded through Ballymena chanting the initials of the Irish National Liberation Army, a splinter group that formed during a 1975 IRA cease-fire and was reportedly referred to by the IRA as "wild men."

After the IRA's declaration last month, Adams acknowledged that some members would disagree and called on them to "keep it in-house and stay united."

The Real IRA has threatened to retaliate against loyalist militias if the attacks continue.

In March, at the height of the fallout over the brutal killing of a Belfast Catholic by IRA men, Adams told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York of the danger of a new group breaking away.

"I think the best way for the IRA to leave the stage," Adams said, "is in a dignified manner that prevents any recurrence of another IRA growing up alongside."

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