Following the discovery of a bomb just 16 miles from the site of this summer's G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, Dr Dave Sloggett explores the potential for the New IRA to use the event to gain publicity for their continuing struggle for a united Ireland:
On the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London a letter appeared in the Guardian newspaper. It announced the formation of what was referred to as the New IRA. Several weeks later it announced that it had been responsible for the death of David Black. He was a prison officer from Northern Ireland. Mr Back was killed by a gunman on the M1 motorway near Belfast. Whoever did the killing had done some homework about the movements of their victim.
Nearly one year on and the New IRA faces its first major test. With the leaders of the world’s top eight economies gathering in Northern Ireland for the latest round of their meetings under the Chairmanship of David Cameron can they stage an event that writes very different headlines to those wanted by the British Prime Minister?
The omens are not good. The last time the G8 met in the United Kingdom was on the 6th of July 2005. The day London was awarded the Olympic Games. One day later Siddique Khan led a team of three other bombers who attacked three Underground trains and a London Transport Bus killing 52 people and wounding over 700. The then Prime Minister had to interrupt his chairmanship of the conference and fly down to London to take political control of the fall-out from the attack. The attack cast a shadow over the G8 meeting and the United Kingdom’s chairmanship. Could the New IRA use the platform of the G8 meeting to stage a similar attack?
Over the last six months it is rare for a day to pass without some reporting appearing in open sources about hoax calls, pipe bombs, punishment shootings or police operations that discover an increasingly worrying set of weapons. The fact that four Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs) have been found in Northern Ireland in the last eighteen months is a major development. Their use by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown how deadly this form of explosive can be in the wrong hands.
The media on the mainland of the United Kingdom has been fairly disinterested in the subject of Northern Ireland for some time. Only when people such as David Black are killed does the media juggernaut stir. Over the last six months the flag protests have dominated the headlines in Northern Ireland and gained widespread coverage on the mainland. But the nature of the reporting has focused on the symbolism of the flag rather than the increasingly difficult and challenging security environment.
Indeed the flag protests have created so much attention that they have tended to bury news related to increasingly frequent acts of sectarian violence and attempted attacks on members of the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI). Since the end of the Olympics the levels of violence have been steadily ratcheted up by the remnants of the dissident republican movement.
In the middle of March an attempted spectacular attack on a police station in Londonderry was only thwarted at the last minute. A van with a hole cut in its roof was discovered armed with a four-tube mortar arrangement located inside. The device was primed and ready to be launched.
This attempted attack is very similar to the format used to attack Number 10 Downing Street on 7 February 1991. A Ford Transit van parked in Whitehall was used as the launcher for two mortars. Both overshot the residence. One landed in the Rose Garden. The other mortar landed just beyond injuring four people. The Prime Minister John Major was in residence at the time with his War Cabinet discussing the First Gulf War. This was a device that was similar to several that had been used in Northern Ireland.
David Cameron’s’ decision to host the G8 meeting in County Fermanagh was clearly designed to show a peaceful Northern Ireland to the world. Previous G8 meetings in the United Kingdom had been held in London and Birmingham. It was right for the Prime Minister to try and remove some of the stigma of terrorism that has blighted a generation in Northern Ireland. But that political decision does have some ramifications vis-à-vis the security presence that is required.
Over 3,000 officers from police forces around the United Kingdom have volunteered to take part. Specialist training in the way that PSNI operates is going to be necessary in order to ensure these officers can function in the unique context of the security landscape in Northern Ireland.
For the New IRA the G8 meeting poses an exam question. Should they try to significantly raise their profile by conducting a spectacular attack? If so what form might that take?
With such a high security presence attacking the Lough Erne golf resort itself inevitably has its difficulties. A mortar attack would enable an active unit to stand off but the range over which the kind of devices used by the dissidents would pose problems for those involved. A cordon sanitaire will inevitably be created around the location to ensure that any attempted use of mortars was reduced to a minimum.
What is far more likely is that the New IRA will choose to continue to try and target officers and family members of those in the PSNI. Several recent incidences have confirmed that they are prepared to place family members in the cross wires as well as serving officers.
The dangers in Northern Ireland have also started to be publically acknowledged by senior counter terrorism officials in Scotland Yard. Whilst Al Qaeda remains the main focus of their work Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Osborne has said that “the United Kingdom faces its most complex terror threat in its history”. In recognising the growing threat from Northern Ireland Mr Osborne went on to acknowledge that “the aspiration of Republican groups would be to attack the mainland”. But he stressed that at present he had “not seen any evidence of that so far”.
This is a pragmatic position. Re-building a capability on the mainland of the United Kingdom from which to launch attacks takes time. For the moment the New IRA seems focused on the PSNI and people employed in associated groups such as the Prison Service. In time that target list might widen. The question is will that occur in time for the G8 meeting in June. If the NEW IRA fails to conduct an attack then their current weakness will be all too apparent. One of the lasting axioms of terrorism is that you have to strike to exist. For the NEW IRA this is an exam question that requires some very careful thinking.