Gardai fear terror groups will recruit economic protesters
DISSIDENT republican terror gangs are planning to exploit street protests against tough economic cutbacks to boost their ranks with disaffected youngsters, gardai fear.
Officers will step up their surveillance on demonstrations, to determine whether the protesters are being infiltrated by dissident activists.
Anti-terrorist officers see the new wave of protests, particularly any that happen after the Budget, as a potential breeding ground for dissident recruitment.
The emergence of new "faces" in a terror group is always a source of concern to gardai.
These are people who have not previously appeared on the security radar and have no known "form" in subversive circles.
Several new "faces" have been brought into the garda net this year as they increase the number of arrests of suspects, indicating that the dissidents remain active recruitment agents.
The combined strength of the three main dissident outfits -- Oglaigh na hEireann, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA -- is estimated to be about 150.
Numbers have increased in the past couple of years but the recruitment campaign has not been as successful as terrorist leaders had hoped.
In contrast, their campaign in Northern Ireland has attracted a regular flow of recruits and the strength is now estimated to number between 350 and 450 people.
Left-wing republican protest group Eirigi has managed to carve a niche for itself among the protesters and its members have been highly active in the Shell to Sea demonstrations in north Mayo and at the recent student protests on the streets of Dublin.
It has no military affiliation and includes a large number of disaffected Sinn Fein supporters. But it has shown that republican groups can quickly infiltrate protests and use them for their own ends.
However, a study of the background of the newcomers has convinced experienced officers that the dissidents are not succeeding in breaking into new social circles.
Most of the new "lilywhites", as they were known during the Provisional IRA campaign, were members of families with a record of involvement in republican activities.
The young terrorists were following in a tradition that previously involved their fathers, uncles or older brothers and made them more vulnerable to recruitment.
One senior garda officer told the Irish Independent last night: "There is no evidence of a breakthrough by any of the dissident groups in swelling their ranks with supporters from targeted areas such as universities and introducing fresh blood into their ranks.
"But we have to keep them under close observation as they don't need too many to set up new teams of activists and send them into a campaign of violence."
Less than a decade ago, the Real IRA managed to create a team of highly educated newcomers, some of them with student backgrounds, and sent them to Britain to launch a new wave of terror attacks.
However, the plan was doomed to failure from the start as gardai had gathered vital intelligence about their movements and alerted Scotland Yard.
The Real IRA team was arrested shortly after they arrived in London and were convicted and jailed.
In September, the threat level to Britain from Irish-related terrorism was raised from moderate to substantial. British home secretary Theresa May explained this meant an attack was a "strong possibility".
MI5 director general Jonathan Evans said he based his assessment on the "persistent rise" in activity and ambition by dissidents in Northern Ireland over the past three years.