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March 10th, 2009
09:58 PM ET

Beware Northern Ireland's growing violence

Nic Robertson
CNN International Correspondent

As good as the Catholic Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were in convincing their IRA colleagues it was time to put down their weapons a decade ago, they were never going to win over all the hard liners.

In the run up to the 1998 peace agreement between Northern Ireland, mostly protestant Unionists who favored keeping Northern Ireland part of Britain and the mostly Catholic Republicans who fought to unite the province's 6 counties with Ireland, Adams and McGuinness worked at leading a united IRA out of the battle.

They failed because some in the IRA believed their leadership was selling out to the British Government. Giving up on the fight before they had a united Ireland. So a minority split with the IRA leadership calling themselves the ‘Real IRA.'

The RIRA, as the ‘Real IRA’ are known locally, had access to some weapons dumps. One local IRA quartermaster general, responsible for obtaining and concealing weapons, reputedly joined the RIRA, but they lacked the numbers, the organization and the ability to mount attacks the way the IRA had. They joined a small and mostly insignificant band of IRA splinter groups. The Continuity IRA, or CIRA, was the leading separatist group at the time.

The hard truth was British intelligence services had so penetrated the IRA by the late 1980’s early 1990’s that the IRA was finding it hard and harder to get away with attacks. The RIRA was in same position, unable to know for sure who was informer and who could be trusted.

After 30 years most people wanted peace, and a huge wave of relief swept the country when the peace agreement was signed in 1998. The RIRA kept quite for a few months before launching the province's most deadly attack in the 3 decades of violence, killing 29 people in the town of Omagh in August 1998.

As a marginal organization, the RIRA had further marginalized itself from any lingering support with the Omagh atrocity by killing Catholic and Protestant alike. For years they lay low. Various alleged members, including the former quartermaster, were arrested and charged.

But at the grass roots, some Republicans continued to feel betrayed by Sinn Fein and the old IRA leadership, who they felt had railroaded them in to a dead end deal with British that was never going to deliver a united Ireland.

Under terms of the 1998 peace deal, the IRA would stand down its operations, stop surveillance of targets and ultimately get rid of its guns. The British government would get the army off the streets and stop its surveillance of the IRA. Both sides wound down their war machines.

The intelligence gathering that had been so key to bringing the IRA to its knees was slackening off. That began to become apparent with a spat of low level attacks last year, explosives left on train tracks, an old IRA tactic. There were no deaths and the incidents stayed out of the headlines. Observers with knowledge of the splinter groups guessed the CIRA and RIRA had at least a working agreement.

A few weeks ago a huge car bomb was discovered before it went off. At that moment it became clear the RIRA at least was back with a vengeance. And it was no surprise that just before the recent killings, Northern Ireland’s police chief called in Britain’s top army surveillance unit.

Their skill at living in hedge rows and fields for days at a time providing close scrutiny of terrorists and their targets was legendary in the British military. If they were being called back in, then clearly the police were worried, and rightly so as events proved. The RIRA claimed the killing of the two soldiers Sunday, and the CIRA claimed the murder of the policeman Monday.

But the networks of informers has grown rusty through lack of use. It would take a long time to put them back in place with the efficiency they had before. How to tell how closely the RIRA the CIRA are working together will be a priority. United, the two splinter groups present a greater challenge and could be more capable of sustaining a sporadic campaign of violence.

Protestant politicians are calling on paramilitaries loyal to the union with Britain to let the police do their job and not attack Catholics and ignite sectarian violence. Most of the Loyalist men of violence these days have allegedly slipped from sectarian thuggery into drug racketeering and crime. If they ignore the calls for calm, and thus far there is no indication they will, the spike in killings could turn in to something far more ugly.

For now that still seems a remote prospect. But for the first time in many decades the British government is short of a partner inside the violent elements of Republicanism. And that means it’s short of a friend who can help call for calm.


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