The fire after the explosion in Derry on Saturday 19 January 2019 PSNI

Opinion The Derry car bomb is part of a dissident republican resurgence over the last decade

The suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly coupled with the rhetoric around a ‘hard border’ has given oxygen to groups like the New IRA, writes Tom Clonan.

SATURDAY’S CAR BOMB attack on Bishop Street in the heart of Derry’s city centre is a very sinister development.  It is not the first time that Derry’s courthouse has been targeted in this way. 

In March 2011, a similar vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) was positioned in front of the same building. 

The IED contained 50kg of home-made explosives and on examination by British Army bomb disposal experts, the device was found to be unstable, but viable.

Despite the Good Friday Agreement and the ceasefires entered into by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, there has been a gradual resurgence in dissident Republican violence over the last 10 years. 

There has also been a rise in Loyalist violence during the same period, involving punishment shootings and killings. But dissident republicans have evolved more sophisticated terrorist operations including targeted assassinations and car bombs and they are understood to be developing expertise in mortar attacks.

In relation to Saturday’s car bomb – which was successfully detonated – the PSNI have stated that their ‘primary line of enquiry is that the New IRA was responsible’. 

They also stated that the ‘crude and unstable’ device was capable of creating a mass casualty incident. 

The New IRA? 

In the wake of the Belfast Agreement, a small but highly skilled cohort of former members of the Provisional IRA went on to form splinter groups of dissident republicans including groups such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. 

In April of 1998, the Real IRA attempted to drive a massive car bomb on board a car ferry in Dublin. However, the car bomb was intercepted by gardaí in Dun Laoghaire. 

A forensic examination of the vehicle carried out by Irish Defence Forces Ordnance Officers found that the device was viable but highly unstable and unpredictable. If they had managed to get on board the ferry – even though the target was in the UK – the bulk charge could easily have prematurely detonated in the Irish Sea, with almost unimaginable consequences.

Unfortunately, the unimaginable did happen in August 1998 when the Real IRA drove a similar car bomb into the centre of Omagh.  The massive 140kg bulk charge, placed in a Vauxhall Cavalier detonated – it killed 29 people and injured more than 200. 

The Real IRA disbanded in the aftermath.  Their counterparts in the Continuity IRA were heavily infiltrated by MI5 and PSNI informants during this period and were hampered in their ability to carry out any major terrorist operations. 

In 2007, due to the peace dividend associated with the Good Friday Agreement and the improving security situation, the British Army formally ended Operation Banner and significantly reduced the numbers of troops deployed to Northern Ireland.

In the background, however, a hardcore of disaffected dissident republicans – retaining the ideological commitment and military and engineering skill sets obtained during the Troubles – continued to organise, recruit and train for terror attacks against a range of targets within Northern Ireland. 

In 2008, dissident republicans carried out three separate assassination attempts on PSNI officers in Dungannon, Castlederg and Dungannon. In two gun attacks and one car bomb operation, three police officers were seriously injured.

In 2009, dissident republicans carried out a gun attack on Massereene Barracks in which they killed two British soldiers, Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar. The weapons used were high-velocity AKM Kalashnikov assault rifles of a type believed to have been ‘de-commissioned’ by the Provisional IRA during the peace process.

In January 2010, PSNI recruit Peadar Heffron seriously injured in a car bomb attack outside his home in Randalstown, Co Antrim. In April of 2010, dissident republicans hijacked a Skoda taxi and placed a 100kg explosive device inside it – detonating outside MI5’s Headquarters in Northern Ireland, at Palace Barracks in Hollywood, Co Down. 

In 2011, PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr was killed by a similar car bomb device.   

This hardcore of dissident republicans, whilst enhancing their operational capabilities and honing their bomb-making and targeted killing skill-sets, came together in early 2012 to form the so-called New IRA. 

Since 2012, the New IRA has consolidated somewhat and has continued to carry out targeted killings and bomb attacks. In November 2012, the New IRA murdered prison officer David Black, in Co Armagh, in a shooting incident. 

They are active in the Republic also and some of their members are believed to have been involved in a bomb that gardaí discovered in 2014, in the Finnstown House hotel in Lucan, west Dublin. 

In 2016, they murdered prison officer prison officer Adrian Ismay in Belfast – by placing a bomb under his car.

By 2017, the PSNI had identified the New IRA as the primary threat to the security of the state in Northern Ireland. During 2017, the PSNI believe that the New IRA were responsible for placing 29 separate explosive devices and carrying out dozens of punishment shootings. 

In 2018, the New IRA is believed to have placed 17 explosive devices and 24 punishment shootings throughout Northern Ireland. 

Currently, it is estimated that the New IRA generates around 50 million pounds sterling per annum through organised crime including fuel smuggling and trade in illegal cigarettes. 

Political upheaval

The suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, coupled with the unfortunate rhetoric around a ‘hard border’ associated with the current Brexit crisis have given oxygen to groups such as the New IRA. 

With strongholds in Derry, Belfast and in the border Counties of Tyrone, Fermanagh and Armagh the New IRA will continue to frustrate and target the normalisation of policing in these sensitive interface areas. 

Brexit provides groups such as the New IRA with a perfect storm in which the national discourse has returned to a peculiarly toxic narrative around identity and borders on this island – narratives which had become largely irrelevant as a consequence of our membership of the European Union. 

The New IRA will continue to mobilise republican rhetoric to justify car bombings and shootings such as that carried out on Saturday.  Those operations will also benefit organised crime by diverting invaluable resources to counter-terrorism and preventing the normalisation of policing – throughout the entire island of Ireland.

Military response

In its new military operation on this island, the British Army has deployed increasing numbers of specialist troops to support ‘Operation Helvetic’ throughout Northern Ireland. 

These include highly trained explosive ordnance disposal officers and the Special Reconnaissance Squadron of the SAS acting in support of MI5 and the PSNI in countering the threat posed by dissident republicans.

The cost of the peace-time security operations in Northern Ireland is already phenomenally high. According to a 2016 report published by the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre for the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland, the annual cost of policing is in excess of £1 billion pounds per annum. 

The cost to the British Exchequer of Operation Helvetic is similar. 

The threat to the security of the state – both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic – posed by dissident republicans has increased significantly as a consequence of the Brexit crisis. 

It has superseded the threat posed by Islamist extremists and represents a clear and present danger to the peace process on this island. 

In my view, any return to a border – of whatever type, hard or otherwise – on this island will cost us dearly, in financial terms and in human terms.

Groups such as the New IRA – along with their business partners in organised crime – have shown themselves to be ready, willing and more than able to constitute an existential threat to the fragile peace in Ireland.      

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