Declan Power: 'It now seems that Brexit is emerging as the unintended catalyst that is fuelling the New IRA'
The tragic death of Lyra McKee during New IRA-inspired rioting in Derry serves to show a much more cynical and sinister approach by dissident republicans to seize the initiative from the authorities and mainstream republicans.
The PSNI have stated they had deployed teams of officers to conduct searches on the Creggan estate for firearms and ammunition in advance of republican commemoration activities over the Easter bank holiday. Intelligence indicated the New IRA were intent on launching armed attacks on police officers during this period.
In response to this, dissident republicans manifested large groups to riot and impede the search. It was during this period of violent chaos that what appeared to have been a lone gunman opened fire with a hand-held firearm.
It seems the fire was directed at a cluster of PSNI officers and vehicles rather than specifically at Ms McKee. However, she and a colleague were gathered at the vehicles, quite sensibly in view of the chaos, little realising that matters would escalate to live ammunition being expended.
There will be the usual outpourings of recrimination from the usual sources, but it will give little in the line of comfort to the family of the unfortunate Ms McKee, or indeed the rest of us who lived through the previous iteration of the Troubles and are viewing what appears to be an lurch in the direction of more of the same.
Let’s break this down and understand what has happened and what it is likely to mean, both good and bad.
To fully comprehend Thursday’s events we must plot them against the backdrop of the other more recent events, including the car bomb detonation of January last and the inconclusive claims about the incendiary devices detonated in London and Glasgow.
Also we must take into account the growing levels of discontent being manifested not just in the Creggan area of Derry, but also in other volatile areas including Loyalist east Belfast.
There has been a battle for the hearts and minds of the youth of these areas. Paramilitaries on both sides have been seeking to maintain the sectarian mindsets that keep them in power in their own little bailiwicks. Much of this has been to do with upholding their power to engage in criminal activities on their own turf.
For the most part, the violence has stayed within the respective communities. This is largely because groups like the New IRA have been using staged violent incidents to make themselves seem relevant and appeal to a new audience and potentially fertile recruitment ground.
The violence has largely been directed within the community it stems from, rather than at what would be considered the enemy, ie the security forces or an opposing community such as the loyalists.
The simple reason for this has been weakness and lack of capacity, both in terms of tradecraft knowledge to conceive, plan and execute such offensive operations. Terrorists are at their most vulnerable when planning and reconnoitring for assaults.
The security forces know this and therefore invest large resources, both technological and human in penetrating and interrupting the planning process of these groups.
It should be noted that these kind of low level activities have been going on for quite some time. One of the avowed objectives of the Good Friday Agreement, the bringing together the marginalised elements of both loyalist and republican communities never really took off, for reasons explained above.
It now seems that Brexit is emerging as the unintended catalyst that is fuelling the New IRA and other dissidents in their desire to return to centre stage in influencing matters in Northern Ireland and beyond. Brexit and the fear and loathing associated with it, particularly in border communities has given them a momentum they hitherto lacked.
However, on a positive note, they still lack capacity in terms of firepower, manpower and tradecraft to manifest attacks and violence beyond what we have seen. Those within their ranks capable of strategic thought, and there are certain number, are banking on an additional catalyst serving their needs.
This would be the unintended reactions or bungling of both the London and Dublin governments.
For example, much of the well-meaning attempts by constitutional nationalists, north and south, to dangle concepts of unity via border polls have had the effect of weaponising the besieged mindset that had been lying dormant in both loyalism and unionism.
We have seen the Ulster Unionist party fall into line in supporting Brexit as they feel they have no choice if they want to seem relevant to their support base.
This has been a strategic boon for dissident republicans, now not only are the marginalised elements of the two communities further apart, but the more mainstream and educated elements are parting ways.
The primary objectives therefore of dissident republicans is to exploit growing divisions in Northern Ireland, fan it with further chaos and violence and hope the governments miscalculate at vital junctures and drive more people to their support base.
Declan Power is an independent security and defence analyst with experience of counter-terrorism matters both at home and abroad.