Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Northern Ireland peace process at risk

The return of violence to the streets of Northern Ireland has run the risk of derailing the peace process. On Saturday a number of soldiers were shot in what was described as an ambush by members of the Real IRA, a dissident group that split from the Provisional IRA in 1997 [BBC]. The Real IRA, or Óglaigh na hÉireann, have been responsible for one of the deadliest attacks perpetrated by Irish Republican terrorists. In 1998 the Real IRA admitted responsibility for the Omagh bombing in 1998 which left 29 dead and over 200 injured. Most of their attacks on the mainland have been relatively minor, though the actions brought them much publicity. Amongst the most prominent attacks was the blast at the BBC in west London .

There have been several attacks in Northern Ireland since 2000, but it was the shooting dead of two soldiers outside the Masereene Barracks in County Antrim that brought the group the publicity they had sought [BBC / Sky News].

The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the attacks and later met with members of the Northern Irish assembly. All sides of the political spectrum, including leading figures in Sinn Féin, have condemned the actions of the Real IRA.

Within 48 hours another dissident group known as the Continuity IRA carried out an attack on a police officer shooting him in the head. The officer, named as Stephen Paul Carroll from County Down, was killed as he responded to a call about a broken window. Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde said it was a “Sad day for Northern Ireland” but insisted the death would not stop his officers from serving the community [BBC / Sky News / CNN].

Speaking shortly after the killing, Gordon Brown once again condemned the attack but insisted the road to peace would continue. Of the people of Northern Ireland he said, “They want the political process to move forward, they do not want violence returning to the streets.”

The Continuity IRA claim to be a legitimate continuation of the Irish Republican Army or Óglaigh na hÉireann, a claim also made by the Provisional IRA. However while the Provisional IRA gave up their 25 year campaign in 2005, the Continuity IRA have persisted in their armed campaign. In a statement released today [Tuesday] the group said, “As long as there is British involvement in Northern Ireland our struggle will continue”.

Although the numbers within the Continuity IRA and Real IRA are relatively small, the damage they might inflict could be considerable. Both organisations are believed to only have around 150 members. This compares with thousands involved in the Provisionals. The groups also lack support on the ground. But the scattered nature of the two groups will make it all the more difficult for MI5 and other security services to find and locate the perpetrators.
Several other splinter groups are also of concern in the security services. Amongst them is the INLA [Irish National Liberation Army] though many of these groups are considered more ‘criminal’ than ‘political’.

The damage that all the groups might inflict on the peaceful political process is nonetheless extremely worrisome.

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