Christopher Walker: Old fears resurface as shadow of terror falls over Ulster

FEW political commentators could have predicted that fears of a new campaign of dissident IRA violence in Northern Ireland would emerge as one of the coalition Government's top security priorities after 100 days in office, or that Owen Paterson, 54, the first Conservative Secretary of State since Sir Patrick Mayhew in 1997, would be thrown into unexpected prominence.

The recent upsurge of dissident republican activity in the province has included booby-trap bombs left under police officers' cars, an explosion outside a police station and at the weekend, the wounding of three children in an explosion in the County Armagh town of Lurgan claimed by police to have had "stark similarities" with the dissident IRA attack in Omagh, County Tyrone, which killed 29 people – and was the worst single atrocity of the 30 years of The Troubles.

To make matters more serious, the Lurgan attack – mounted as a lure for the police just the day before the 12th anniversary of the Real IRA Omagh blast – has led to the opposition nationalist Social Democratic and Unionist Party to call for the police to replace MI5 which has been in charge of intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland since 2007.

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Adding to the new sense of crisis gripping the province and once again overshadowing the many tangible benefits of the power-sharing peace process inaugurated after the 1998 Good Friday agreement, have been repeated rumours that shadowy secret talks have been under way between the republican mavericks and the British and Irish governments.

Repeated denials have failed to quash the speculation, reminding many that a previous Conservative government flew Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and other Provisional IRA leaders for secret talks in a Thameside Chelsea house as far back as 1972. A subsequent Tory Prime Minister, John Major, added to the party's reputation for double-talk in the terrorist struggle by telling the House of Commons that the very thought of talking to Mr Adams "turned his stomach".

Just as talks with the Taliban are likely to prove the only route for British forces out of Afghanistan, the likelihood of more dissident IRA activity (the security forces on both sides of the border are hunting for a huge car bomb they have been told has been built) resulting in more secret behind-the scenes contacts has been reinforced by Northern Ireland's well respected Chief Constable, Matt Baggott.

Apparently not given to such verbal evasions as those practised by his political masters, Mr Baggott told the Irish state broadcaster RTE that he did not think that it was a betrayal if politicians engaged in dialogue with such groups, but stressed that conditions would have to

be attached.

According to security contacts in Belfast, three dissident IRA groups are now acting in a loose coalition to carry on the armed struggle which, they still maintain, will eventually force the British to leave Northern Ireland. They are the most ruthless and militarily competent, Oglaigh naEirann(OnH),which roughly translates as "soldiers of Ireland", and confusingly is also the official Irish-language title for the Irish defence forces.

The group, which has been playing a leading part in the recent violence, includes some of the most experienced terrorists from the Provisional IRA (PIRA), many bitterly disillusioned by the ceasefire and the disabling of the group's large arsenal. The Independent Monitoring Commission reported in November, 2008, that the group "continues to pose a serious threat, both as a paramilitary group capable of extreme violence and because of the criminal activities of it members".

Its membership has recently been boosted by gunmen and bomb-makers who have defected from the other two better known dissident groups, the Real IRA (RIRA), born out of a split in the mainstream Provisional IRA in October 1997, when its quartermaster-general stormed out in protest at peace moves being undertaken by Sinn Fein.

The other member of the trio now returning increasingly to the bomb is the Continuity IRA (CIRA), whose origins can be traced back to a split in the IRA centring on opposition to republican candidates taking seats in the Dail, the Irish Republic's parliament.

For many years, the CIRA was a small and largely inactive group, but it returned to terrorism in 1996 when it destroyed a popular hotel in County Fermanagh with a 1,200lb bomb. More recently, it killed police constable Stephen Carroll in March 2009 in Craigavon, County Armagh. The counties of Armagh and Fermanagh are its main recruiting ground.

Now out of the frame is the once notorious Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), formed in 1975 by disaffected IRA men unhappy at a previous ceasefire. It announced on October 11, 2009, that its armed struggle was over. As any student of Ireland's recent bloody history knows, one of the main dangers of the renewed dissident violence is its uncanny reflection of the way in which the Provisional IRA gathered strength by attracting militant recruits disaffected by the more moderate Official IRA.

Christopher Walker is a former Northern Ireland Correspondent of The Times.