Dissidents ramp up terror

20 August 2006
Sunday Business Post

Police in the North have been bracing themselves for an upsurge in dissident republican violence following a series of bomb attacks in recent days.

Last Tuesday, Irish Army bomb disposal experts defused a 70lb device which had been planted at a house belonging to Ulster Unionist peer Edward Haughey in Co Louth. Last Wednesday, the Real IRA was blamed for attacks on two tyre factories at Dungannon in Co Tyrone. The attacks came just days after dissident republicans planted two devices close to the main Belfast-Dublin railway line outside Newry. The same group was blamed for a series of firebomb attacks on stores in Newry which caused tens of thousands of euros in damage.

Last April, dissident republicans in Derry placed an incendiary device into a van and ordered the driver to take it to a local police station. After the driver abandoned the bomb on a bridge, army bomb experts discovered that the timer mechanism had activated, but the device had failed to explode. While the Real IRA has been hit by a series of blows to its organisation this year due to the arrest of a number of senior members, there are concerns among the security forces that dissidents are preparing to increase their campaign ahead of attempts to revive the Stormont assembly in November.

In July, Lurgan republican Paul McCaugherty, 39, was described in court as the second-in-command of the Real IRA when he was charged in connection with an international gun-smuggling operation. McCaugherty is alleged to have been involved in attempts to purchase a huge weapons arsenal from dissidents in mainland Europe. The Real IRA’s ‘shopping list’ included AK47 assault rifles, sniper rifles, heavy machine guns, pistols, SAM7 surface-to-air missiles, 100kg of Semtex and C4, vehicle booby trap devices, disposable rocket propelled grenades, grenade launchers, detonators, detonator cords and anti-tank armour piercing weapons. The smuggling operation was thwarted by MI5 and French secret service agents posing as arms dealers. McCaugherty is also accused of receiving €46,000 and the deeds of a commercial property in Portugal, intending that it should be used to fund terrorist activity.

In June, alleged senior dissidents Aidan Grew and Noel Abernathy appeared in court charged with Real IRA membership and attempts to smuggle cigarettes worth €1 million. In May, two other alleged Real IRA members were arrested in Spain in connection with an alleged €1 million cigarette smuggling operation.

In April, six men and a 16-year-old youth were arrested in west Belfast in what police believe was a bomb-making class. Some of those arrested came from as far away as Ballymena and Dungannon.

In June last year, five men - including the organisation’s leader in Munster, Ciaran O’Dwyer - were jailed for Real IRA membership. O’Dwyer had previously been released under the Good Friday Agreement after being jailed in 1990f or possession of AK47 rifles, handguns and Semtex. He had previously been convicted of IRA membership in 1973.

In February 2005, five young people from DUP leader Ian Paisley’s hometown of Ballymena appeared in court charged with a Real IRA firebombing campaign against commercial properties across the North.

The Real IRA is thought to have 150 active members, although that may be a conservative estimate if support networks are included. There are up to 60 dissidents, mainly Real IRA members, in Maghaberry Prison in the North and in Portlaoise Prison in the Republic. The group has up to ten prisoners in Britain, including three men from Co Louth who were jailed in 2002 after they tried to buy an arms consignment in Slovakia from an undercover MI5 officer posing as an Iraqi intelligence officer. Dissidents in Maghaberry are engaged in protests, which earlier this month included a two-day hunger strike. While the Real IRA has no real political voice, it is impossible to gauge what effect its prison protests are having on nationalist opinion.

There have been tensions within the prisons over divisions between the organisation’s leaders Michael McKevitt and Liam Campbell. Outside the jails, the Real IRA is regarded as being split into at least two factions: those determined to wreck the peace process and those engaged in criminal activities, including smuggling.

The recent upsurge in dissident attacks is causing serious concerns among security forces on both sides of the border. While the security forces have succeeded in penetrating the Real IRA with informers in recent years, the lack of any central command within the organisation means that its members are largely free to pick their own targets, which makes it harder for police to predict where the next attack will take place. In December 2004, dissidents firebombed shops in Lisburn, Newry, Antrim, Derry, Newtownabbey and Ballymena in the space of a few days.

The Real IRA’s key strategy is to mount attacks against ‘‘soft targets’’ which offer only minimal risk of being caught. The attack on the tyre companies in Dungannon last week involved no more than prising open air ducts on the outside walls of the factories and pouring flammable liquid through the ducts. The subsequent fire damage is estimated to top €1 million. Incendiary devices are notoriously simple to assemble and easy to use. They are very small and can be hidden in anything from a cigarette packet to a tape cassette box. They are simple to conceal in a pocket and can be easily hidden at the back of a shelf in a shop in seconds. Real IRA operatives can plant devices in any retail park and escape with the minimum risk to themselves. Carpet shops, DIY and furniture stores are chosen because of the huge damage which a firebomb can cause to such stores. Dissidents have regularly made hoax threats that devices have been left in shops right across the North, forcing keyholders to undertake painstaking searches of their premises.

The tactic attempts to cause maximum disruption while destabilising the Northern Ireland economy. Similarly, it is relatively simple for the Real IRA to bring cross-border train services to a standstill for days by claiming to have left a device on the line. The disruption is a major coup achieved at minimal risk. Expressing concern at the latest increase in dissident attacks, Dermot Ahern, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said: ‘‘The bombing of Newry, a town which was going from strength to strength, and now this incident at Eddie Haughey’s - it again just makes the Irish government much more resolute in what we’re doing. ‘‘We are working hand-in-glove with the British government and indeed our two police forces are working hand-in-glove in order to stamp this out, the entrails of this type of violence." Given the growing frequency of incidents, the two police forces could have a busy autumn ahead.

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