Northern Ireland’s security situation is complicated – so much so that visitors might be scared away despite only a minimal risk. A risk much lower than the risk of being a traffic victim. Let me try to make the facts clear ...
Northern Ireland 2011 – An Elevated Risk Assessment
With the death of another police officer in a car-bomb attack, British intelligence and security services elevated the risk assessment for Northern Ireland again
On April 2nd, 2011, PSNI Officer Ronan Kerr was on his way to work when a bomb exploded underneath his car and killed the 25-year-old instantly. The attack happened in Omagh, scene of the worst atrocity during the troubles. In 1998 a car bomb left in the town centre killed 29 civilians and two unborn twins. The timing (just before the election in Northern Ireland), the target (a Catholic police officer) and the location send out a worrying message.
It was the fourth death due to dissident republican activities in recent years. On March 7th, 2009, two soldiers died in an attack on Massereene Barracks in County Antrim, when at least two gunmen drew up in a car, firing automatic weapons. This was followed by a gun attack on a PSNI patrol in Craigavnon (County Armagh) on March 9th, 2009 - leaving one officer dead.
Who is Behind the April 2011 and March 2009 Attacks?
We cannot say for sure, but all evidence points towards dissident Republicans. The “Real IRA” has claimed responsibility for the Antrim murders in a telephone call.
Have There Been Further Attacks?
Yes - a number of explosive devices were planted even in city centre locations, though not all of them exploded. As before, most of these attacks (or attempts) were blamed on dissident Republicans. In May 2010 there has also been a lethal gun attack in the Shankill area of Belfast that was linked to an ongoing feud between Loyalist fractions.
What are “Dissident Republicans”?
For the last ninety years the paramilitary forces on both sides of the divide have split into numerous fractions, often using grandiose names.
The “Republican Movement”, though often portrayed as a towering monolith, is far from unified. Sinn Fein is connected to only part of the paramilitaries, the “Provisional IRA” (PIRA, Provos), which has disarmed. Republicans dissatisfied with Sinn Fein’s strategy in seeking a political accord have formed very vocal political groups with their own connections to paramilitary units, the high-profile ones being the “Continuity IRA” (CIRA) and the “Real IRA” (RIRA). Another group has emerged styling itself "Óglaigh na hÉireann" (roughly translated as "Irish Volunteers" - a rather confusing moniker that is also used by the PIRA and the regular armed forces of the Republic of Ireland.
These groups have split off from the PIRA and taken their weapons with them – and are still trying to source new weapons and explosives. Recently a (rather inept) gun-runner-to-be was arrested in Eastern Europe.
What is the Reasoning Behind Recent Attacks?
In a telephone call to a journalist, a male claimed responsibility for the attack on Massereene Barracks in the name of the “Real IRA”. According to “Sunday Tribune” journalist Suzanne Breen, “he made, and the Real IRA made, no apology for targeting British soldiers while they remained what he called occupying the north of Ireland.”
As to the shooting of two pizza delivery men in the same incident, one of them Polish, the unknown caller stated that these were “collaborating with British rule”. Using this reasoning (for want of a better word), anybody not actively resisting “British rule” can become a “legitimate target”.
Ultimately the aim of the perpetrators is to sow unrest in Northern Ireland, to further their concept of a united Ireland "by any means necessary". It has to be clearly stated that only a minute and dwindling proportion of the population is ready to identify with the methods taken.
Are All Attacks Politically Motivated?
Definitely not - some shootings and smaller bombs are the work of criminal gangs and only connected to their "enterprises". Though sometimes a political background might exist due to the interchangeability of some paramilitary groups and armed gangs.
What Does This Mean for Northern Ireland?
The threat of dissident paramilitary fractions committing acts of violence has always been an undercurrent even after the Good Friday Agreement – both Republican and Loyalist splinter groups have carried on “fighting for the cause”. This was, however, more often in-fighting and/or related to finances ... all active groups seem to rely on financial tactics that are a carbon copy of organised crime.
The deadly attacks of 2009 and 2011 (and the unsuccessful or foiled attacks before and after) have only highlighted the ongoing threat and the will and ability of paramilitary groups to mount operations.
What Does This Mean for the Visitor to Northern Ireland?
As strange as it may sound ... little.
The general security situation in Northern Ireland has not changed massively over the last few months, it is still safe to travel there. Visitors will have to exercise common sense, though – if it looks like trouble is brewing, calmly walk away before the pot boils over. And if you are asked by security personnel to leave an area, do the sensible thing and follow their directions. You do not want to have any first-hand experience of “collateral damage” or (depending where your sympathies lie) “friendly fire”.
But it has to be said again and again: The threat of violence in Northern Ireland is generally no greater than anywhere else in the world these days. Statistically speaking more people die in road traffic accidents than in politically-motivated violence.