Dissident republican threat 'not rising but still real'

Real IRA mural The Real IRA were responsible for the killing of two soldiers at Massereene Barracks in Antrim in 2009

Dissident republicans remain armed, active and dangerous but the chances of them spreading their terror across the Irish Sea have reduced.

Yes, they remain a major threat in Northern Ireland but it seems their support and their capability is no longer rising.

A bombing campaign in Great Britain - a key part of the Provisional IRA's strategy during 30 years of violence - seems beyond the dissidents, at present.

The latest evidence of their limitations is the decision by the security services to downgrade the threat posed to Great Britain.

It used to be officially classified as "substantial" - an attack being a strong possibility. It has now been lowered to "moderate"- an attack is possible but not likely.

No-one is doubting the desire of groups like the Real IRA and Continuity IRA to plant a bomb in London, or another high-profile British city, but the chances of them being capable of mounting such an attack are rated as low. There are likely to be concerns, however, that dissident republicans will be anxious to prove the authorities wrong.

As the IRA proved so often during 30 years of violence, paramilitary groups prefer to respond with actions rather than words.

The truth, however, is that none of the current dissident groups come even close to matching the IRA in terms of support, weaponry, finance and activists.

Security services

Between them, the various dissident groups are believed to have, at most, 700 members.

In July, three different factions came together to try to form a "new IRA" - the Derry-based vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), the Real IRA and a group of unaligned dissidents, most of whom are seasoned ex-members of the Provisional IRA.

They announced they had "come together with a unified structure, under a single leadership, subservient to the constitution of the Irish Republican Army".

The fear is that the group will want to announce itself with a deadly attack.

Forensic officers in Derry Forensic officers attended the scene of a dissident republican bomb incident at Derry City Council's offices last month

Significantly, the new grouping does not include the hardline faction Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) and the Continuity IRA.

The shadowy world of dissident republicanism has been dogged by in-fighting in recent years, with clashing egos, and growing paranoia about informers within their ranks.

Last year, full details emerged about the MI5 sting operation in Lithuania which thwarted weapons smuggling by the Real IRA. Michael Campbell, 39, from County Louth was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

This was not just a setback for dissident republicans but a headline-grabbing victory for the security services.

Nonetheless, the threat still posed should not be under-estimated.

In the past four years, they have killed two soldiers and two police officers in Northern Ireland, and are determined to strike again.

Back in September 2010, the head of MI5, Jonathan Evans said in a speech that dissidents presented "a real and increasing security challenge".

Two years on, the threat may no longer be rising, but it certainly remains real.

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