What does dissident republican 'merger' statement mean?

Shots fired at Real IRA funeral The Real IRA is one of the groups which says it is forming a new republican organisation

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Dissident republican groups have issued a statement saying they have merged to form a new organisation calling itself the IRA.

The statement said Irish republicans and a number of organisations have come together within a unified structure under a single leadership.

Co-operation between dissident republicans is nothing new.

The police have been saying for a number of years now that groups and individuals have worked together on an ad hoc basis to plan and carry out attacks and pass on technical expertise.

In spite of these occasional alliances, until now the assessment of the dissident groups is that they have been fractured, with more than 20 different gangs operating to their own agendas.

There have been ongoing talks between some of the individuals involved stretching back a number of years and previous attempts to form a new, larger group under a single leadership.

That now appears to have happened.

A statement issued to the BBC and other media outlets from a group calling itself the Irish Republican Army claimed a number of Irish republicans and organisations have now come together "within a unified structure under a single leadership".

The groups involved are believed to be the Real IRA, the Derry-based organisation Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), and a collection of individuals who until now have not operated under any single banner.

So what does this mean? Is the threat posed by dissident republicans now significantly higher?

In theory, it should be. A merger of smaller groups into one larger organisation increases the number of people available to the leadership of this group, as well as increasing the level of technical expertise and the amount of weaponry.

In theory, the merger should increase their capacity and capability, but security sources say the threat has not changed.

'Game-changing'

Those involved in monitoring the activities of dissident groups watch closely for what they call "game-changing" developments - a significant increase in technical ability and capacity.

At this stage they say this is not regarded as "game-changing".

"This group is attempting to portray this as the rebirth of the IRA, but that is not what this is," said one.

"This is not the creation of an entirely new organisation with new people and new weapons. These individuals have been involved in dissident activity for some time now, but appear to have agreed to act in a more cohesive way."

In March 2009, the BBC revealed that MI5 had increased the official threat assessment level posed by dissident groups to severe, meaning an attack was regarded as "highly likely", whereas previously an attack had been regarded as "a strong possibility".

Within days, two soldiers were shot dead in Antrim and Constable Stephen Carroll became the first member of the PSNI to be killed when he was shot by the Continuity IRA in Craigavon. Since then, Constable Ronan Kerr has also been killed.

So what about now, has this statement changed the security assessment?

Massereene Barracks sign Dissident republicans murdered two soldiers at Massereene Barracks in Antrim

Police sources say no. As far as they are concerned, the threat today is at the same level it has been for the past three and a half years.

They will be concerned that this new grouping may attempt to mark its arrival with what they would call a "spectacular", meaning attacks on the police or a high profile location. But they describe their state of alert as the same as it has been for some time now.

So why has this statement come now? Is it a sign that dissident groups are growing in strength?

That is one reading of the development. It could be that after years of divisions and discussions, senior figures within the various factions have now agreed to work to a common agenda.

But some are interpreting the move as a sign of possible weakness, an indication that the groups and individuals involved feel they are under growing pressure from the police and the security services.

High risk targets

Some individuals may be feeling isolated and vulnerable and are seeking strength and safety in numbers. They may also feel a sense of frustration that they have not had the level of operational activity they would have liked.

There have been a number of events during the past year that the police regarded as "high risk, high value targets".

These included the recent visit to Northern Ireland by the Queen as part of her Jubilee celebrations, the Olympic Torch relay, the Irish Open at Portrush and the MTV awards in Belfast.

All of the events attracted huge media attention and an opportunity for dissident groups to grab the headlines by mounting attacks, but they did not manage to disrupt any of those events.

What impact does this have on the ability of the police and security services to counter dissident republicans? Is it now more difficult, or potentially a bit easier?

At one level, the development could make the challenge more difficult.

The police have previously estimated that there were around 600 people involved in dissident republican activity, with most operating at a low level.

This new grouping could be several hundred strong and now has access to a larger pool of technical expertise, weaponry and terrorist know-how.

That could result in greater operational capability and capacity, but there is also a potential downside for those involved.

In the past, the fractured nature of the various dissident groups was both a weakness and a strength.

A weakness because it reduced their ability to mount a sustained campaign of violence. A strength because the close-knit nature of some of the groups made them difficult to infiltrate or predict.

The police and security services had to monitor the movements, activities and intentions of a large number of groups and individuals.

Now, if this statement does indeed mark the birth of a larger, centralised organisation, the security services can focus their intelligence gathering efforts on a much smaller number of senior figures.

That's precisely what happened with the Provisional IRA, which by the time it declared a ceasefire and entered the political process was heavily infiltrated at all levels.

Ironically, a move aimed at greater unity could potentially lead to increased tensions and divisions within dissident ranks as the history of militant republicanism is littered with feuds and splits.

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