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Dissident Resurgence Seen in Northern Ireland

Denis Foynes

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 6 2011 (IPS) - It was a tragedy on Mother’s Day for Nuala Kerr. Her son Ronan had been a police constable for three months when he was murdered by dissident republicans in April.

Ronan Kerr was reportedly well-liked among the community but was targeted because he was Roman Catholic and seen by dissidents’ as a traitor for joining the police force.

The attack is the one of the latest in a surge in dissident activity seen in recent years, following the Belfast Agreement of 1998 which affirmed Northern Ireland’s status as part of Britain and created a devolved system of government.

In January 2009, a 300-pound car bomb was left outside a primary school in Castlewellan, County Down. Following another bomb scare in Belfast in March of that year, the threat level was raised from serious to severe.

Dissident activity escalated to new level later in 2009 when an attack on an Army barracks in Antrim by the Real Irish Republican Army (IRA) resulted in the deaths of two soldiers and injures to four more. Mark Quinsey, 23, and Patrick Azimkar, 21, were shot dead days before they were due to deploy to Afghanistan.

Two days later, a Police Service of Northern Ireland officer, Stephen Carroll, was shot dead by the Continuity IRA in County Armagh. Since then there have been bomb attacks in Forkhill County, Armagh and Londonderry.

In 2010 alone, there were 30 attacks across Northern Ireland. Although not many people were killed, many observers believe they were dry run operations for larger, more deadly attacks in the future.

Four years ago, the Independent Monitoring Commission released a report stating that the Provisional IRA had abandoned violence and terrorism. The remaining problem has been breakaway organisations such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, which rejected the peace process and are committed to achieving a united Ireland at all costs.

Dr. Mari Fitzduff, an Irish activist and academic, told IPS that she believes that even though the dissidents are small in numbers, “they can create a great deal of damage with the weapons they have.”

Fitzduff added that it is important not to forget the danger from Unionist terror groups as well.

“Many Loyalists felt left out of the peace process and believe Catholics got a better deal. This is why the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) still exists today and probably fuelled the riots in East Belfast in mid-June this year,” she said.

Dr. Richard Jackson, a terrorism expert at Aberystwyth University, told IPS, “In reality, I am not convinced that these groups currently operating have the capacity to launch anything other than occasional bomb attacks and shootings.”

“Having said that, Northern Ireland is still a polarised society and a few really tragic incidents could re-ignite deep hatred,” he noted.

This is the delicate situation facing Justice Minister David Ford. On Apr. 12, Ford became Northern Ireland’s first justice minister in 38 years. This was a historic step forward for the country and devolution.

Ford told IPS that, “The level of threat in Northern Ireland remains severe. This was clearly illustrated by the callous murder of Constable Ronan Kerr earlier this year, and by a number of recent attacks which demonstrate that these terrorists remain determined to kill police officers.”

“There is no doubt that there are people in our society who remain determined to use violence to achieve their political aims and to cause division,” he said. “They will not achieve this. The security forces on both sides of the border have had significant success both in terms of arrests and charges, and in terms of preventing and disrupting many attacks.”

“It is important, however, to recognise that there needs to be a wider response to terrorism beyond that which policing can offer,” Ford noted. “There is also the political and community response – it is vital that we continue to work together to build a shared, positive and peaceful future for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Addressing the social conditions that give rise to this kind of activity remains a key aspect, experts agree.

One significant development in Northern Ireland was the awarding of the City of Culture award to Londonderry for 2013. Londonderry is the dissidents’ stronghold and the bombing of an Ulster Bank in the city in October last year shows their capabilities there.

The City of Culture award represents progress and further recognition for the Northern Ireland state. These are developments the Real IRA is against.

On top of this, the award endorses the normalisation of British control over the six counties.

“I believe the peace process is not endangered,” Jackson told IPS. “It has become embedded with time and the amount of economic and social progress made means the people have invested too much into the process to ever want to go back to the way things were.”

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