Patrick Mercer: Undercurrent of terror still haunts Ulster

THEY never forget in Ulster and that's why the Bloody Sunday report was marked by a bomb, why the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne inearly July caused widespread rioting and why this weekend'sforthcoming "celebrations" of the start of internment are likely to be a flashpoint. But these are only the things that make it to the headlines of the newspapers on the mainland. So much else goesunremarked – and here lies the danger.

For instance, on a lonely road in County Armagh on July 10, a bomb blew up near a bridge in, the police suggest, a good, old-fashioned IRA- style attempt to lure them into the area for a further ambush. Then a

taxi was hijacked in Londonderry. A bomb was loaded on board and the driver forced to take it to a nearby Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) station.

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A misleading warning was given, designed, no doubt, to cause maximum casualties and the device exploded causing great damage but, mercifully, hurting no one.

Then, two days ago, an off-duty major had a bomb strapped under his car near Belfast. It failed to explode, but he had a lucky escape. But

these are only the main incidents; look at a list of the things that the PSNI has to deal with daily and you will see a litany of horrors that reminds me all too much of the many tours of duty that I completed in the Province between 1975 and 1993.

Should we be surprised by all this? After all, hasn't Northern Ireland been "solved" and haven't our problems moved on to wholly different spheres?

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Take, for instance, the two young Sappers who were murdered last year as they took delivery of pizzas at their barrack gate. They weren't in Ulster in support of the police, they were part of the conventional garrison and, tragically, were just about to deploy to Afghanistan. Why did they have to die?

I'd like to say that the answer is simple but, of course, it isn't. A casual glance at Irish history from, say the uprising of 1798, demonstrates that the country under what could be described as "British occupation" experiences pulses of violent activity every couple of decades or so.

The tragedy that engulfed Ulster from 1969 onwards was unusual, though; the waves of trouble in the '40s, '50s and early '60s were much briefer and less bloody. But, if you want a better understanding of the problem, listen to the songs and slogans of the Republicans.

They will tell you "always to keep a pike in the thatch", in other

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words, never let go of your weapons for they'll be needed one day. Similarly, I've never forgotten being told, while on patrol in South Armagh, that the local people were only too aware of the supposed misconduct of my Regiment during the 1916 rebellion in Dublin. Memories are long in "The Six Counties".

But how serious is the threat? There's no comparison between the activities of the Real and the Continuity IRA and the Provisional IRA. Then, the "Provos" attacked every day, not always killing but mortaring the security forces, bombing commercial targets, sniping and, on one occasion in 1989, capturing an Army base using a home-made tank. They kept a huge proportion of Britain's Regular Army busy and, even more cleverly, hit targets in England. Remember the Manchester bomb and the attack on the Tory Party conference in Brighton. We've also just seen the 20th anniversary of the murder of Ian Gow in Sussex – a MP who was at the heart of Margaret Thatcher's government.

I don't believe that our enemies are capable of this sort of intensity or sophistication of violence – but they intend to be. Many of today's terrorists were part of PIRA and the expertise has not been lost and their aim, of course, is to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.

Many dissident hardliners believe that their erstwhile leaders have sold out, exchanging the Armalite and Semtex for ministerial posts and salaries, despite the fact that the heel of the Crown's jackboot still grinds at the throat of "their" people. On top of this, a new

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generation of children have been taught about the good old days when the Provos stood proud and true. If you're living on a sink estate in the centre of West Belfast or Strabane and existing on benefits, I can see why the Republican ideal might be seductive.

Despite all the signs, Britain was not ready for the "Troubles" of the late '60s; now we're facing more violence that is wholly predictable. While it mustn't be got out of proportion and mistakes such as

internment must never be repeated, Whitehall and Stormont have got to dedicate the right resources, the right intelligence and governmental machinery to it and expect setbacks. It's nave to hope that violent Republicanism will simply disappear for there will always be "pikes in the thatch". The trick will be in keeping them there.

Patrick Mercer served in the Sherwood Foresters, much of his time being spent in Northern Ireland. He is now the Tory MP for Newark.