Could IRA splinter groups bring back Northern Ireland's Troubles?

IRA splinter groups like the Continuity IRA have stepped up attacks in Northern Ireland. While they have a hard core and cause some mayhem, they are unlikely to spark a broader conflict.

Peter Morrison/AP/FILE
A police forensic officer examines the scene of a car bomb in east Belfast, Northern Ireland, Oct. 16. Members of an IRA splinter group tried to kill a Belfast police officer by planting a bomb under his car, but the small blast instead slightly injured a relative, authorities said.

This year, Northern Ireland has witnessed a resurgence of militant activity by Irish Republican Army splinter groups like the so-called Real IRA and Continuity IRA, most notably the killing of two British soldiers at Masserene Barracks in County Antrim in March.

Since then, bomb threats have been occurring on an almost weekly basis and security has been stepped-up in the north as a result. This week, a bomb detonated at an Army reserve base in North Belfast, though there were no injuries. Last week a car bomb went off in Belfast, injuring one.

Though the bombings have generated few casualties so far – and many have been identified and safely handled before they could go off – some in Northern Ireland fear that a bloody campaign is in the offing by militants who felt betrayed by the 2005 decision of the mainline Provisional IRA to give its up guns.

But analysts and police say that while there is clearly a hard core of militants with the ability and motivation to carry out attacks, few Roman Catholics in the north – even ones who would like to be united with the rest of Ireland – will back a new armed campaign,

Authorities say that a fair degree of planning has gone in to some of the recent attacks. The Belfast car bombing was carried out in the constituency of Northern Ireland's first minister Peter Robinson, of the hardline pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, and officials say the attackers had a strong knowledge of the area.

"The Army have confirmed that this device was designed to cause death or serious injury. In fact, had the person possibly been sitting in the passenger side of the car, we probably would be talking about a fatality here," Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) local commander, Chief Superintendent Brian Maguire told the press.

Counterterrorism analyst Andy Oppenheimer, author of "IRA – The Bombs and the Bullets: A History of Deadly Ingenuity," and a former editor for defense publisher Jane's, says republican microgroups are potentially a serious threat.

Capable bombers

"The car bomb used was sophisticated. The explosive device used appears to have been an under-vehicle booby trap that used something like a mercury tilt switch," says Mr. Oppenheimer. "This indicates that they have a lot of technical capability.

"The car was a soft-top, so the explosion dissipated," says Oppenheimer. "Had it been an ordinary car, there may have been deaths – the bomb was apparently heard over a mile away."

Police in Northern Ireland have expressed concern that membership in the dissident groups numbers several hundred, and that they have turned to organized crime to fund their military campaigns.

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie says many people formerly involved in attacks were now using old gun-running routes for contraband. She says dissidents were continuing to engage in for-profit crime to fund terrorism, and that joint operations by police on both sides of the Irish border were trying to combat this activity.

Garda Síochána, the police force in the Republic of Ireland, are thought to have had advance intelligence on attacks. On Sept. 19 and Sept. 20, three "improvised explosive devices" were discovered and defused in three separate locations across Ireland, though it is as yet unconfirmed that the bombs were the work of republicans. A Garda spokesperson told The Christian Science Monitor that the identity of those responsible for the devices was an open investigation.

Violent disagreement, peaceful dissent

Republican groups intent on continuing the struggle reject the label "dissident."

"We in Republican Sinn Féin are the republican movement," says Geraldine Taylor of Republican Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the Continuity IRA, which split from Sinn Féin in 1986. Republican Sinn Féin is led by former Sinn Féin president and one-time IRA chief of staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh.

Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member who was imprisoned and is now a writer, has been a fierce critic of Sinn Féin – the political wing of the IRA – since it signed the Good Friday Accord in 1998 that led to the creation of powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland. However, Mr. McIntyre, who was barred from entry to the United States in 2008, is even harder on the republican microgroups who want to continue the armed struggle.

"People have a right to reject nationalism," he says, arguing that the dissidents had no right to engage in an armed campaign.

"Some people think their strategy is to drive the British Army back onto the streets, but I'm not sure their actions are that thought out – I don't think there is a strategic logic behind them," he says. "I think they probably see the pool settling, and every now and then they'll throw something into it to create ripple effect – and embarrass Sinn Féin."

McIntyre says the ball is firmly in the court of the IRA and Sinn Féin, and that they can undermine the militants: The IRA needs "to come out and say their campaign was wrong and that they were the product of British state policy in 1969, not of ideology. Otherwise, you get into a situation where these groups can justify continuing by pointing to the campaigns of yesterday," he says.

Giving up the gun

Still, some militants are giving up their guns. The Marxist-inspired Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) has signaled that its war is over and that republican socialists will now concentrate on entirely political means to achieve a united Ireland. The group, founded in the revolutionary fervor of the 1970s, is expected to dump arms, though it is unclear whether it will go through a formal decommissioning process.

"It's about the primacy of politics, [we want] to challenge the status quo and [the INLA standing down will] allow us to build alliances," Martin McMonagle, a senior member of the group's political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, tells the Monitor.

The INLA was responsible for some of the most audacious attacks of the conflict in Ireland, including the assassinations of British war hero Airey Neave in the parking area of the British houses of Parliament and of loyalist gunman Billy Wright while he was imprisoned in the high-security Maze prison in Northern Ireland.


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