An article in the Economist last Friday, charting all the paramilitary attacks during August, made chilling reading. And the month isn’t even over yet. A no-warning bomb blast in Lurgan set people’s minds back to the 1998 Omagh atrocity; an interview with Oglaigh na hEireann suggested that the group has been successful in recruiting former members of the Provisional IRA; and a striking a piece investigative journalism by the BBC uncovered support for the dissidents amongst people too young to even remember the Troubles.
These signs cannot be ignored; addressing nationalist grievances, opening channels of communication with the dissident groups and preventing further growth should be an absolute priority for the government if further loss of life is to be prevented (the dissidents already succeeded in killing two soldiers and a police officer last year).
However, comments this week by Tory MP Patrick Mercer, suggesting that groups such as the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, are planning a strike on the forthcoming Conservative Party conference, were nothing short of ridiculous. Worse still – they were irresponsible and dangerous.
These groups, whilst beginning to give security services in Northern Ireland the run-around, have nowhere near the capacity to launch an attack in Britain. Even less so on what will be the most secure area of the country that week. By deliberately conjuring up memories 1984 when the Provisional IRA almost killed Margaret Thatcher in a bomb attack at the Tory’s Brighton conference, Mercer is playing up to emotions which remain understandably raw. He is ignoring the reality of the situation and stoking a fire which could easily lead to tribal paranoia; clouding a rational response to what is a remarkably delicate issue.
In truth, the dissidents’ tactics are far more nuanced than Mercer understands. By targeting Catholic police officers they are seeking to dissuade Catholics/Nationalists from joining the police force, with the eventual aim of Catholic/Nationalist communities rejecting British law enforcement agencies once again. By planting random devices timed to explode without warning they are looking to whip up a sense of unease and paranoia which they believe will naturally lead to people seeking paramilitary protection. By causing widespread disruption through hoaxes they are trying to instill the belief that Northern Ireland can never be a ‘normal’ society whilst it remains under British rule.
What they are almost certainly not about to do is attempt to kill Cameron and his cabinet when they arrive in Birmingham. To suggest they are risks drawing attention away from the real issues at best….and stirring up an already volatile situation at worst.