09 March 2006

Dissidents still threat to Northern Ireland security, warns watchdog


· Concerns raised about splinter groups' activities
· Provisional IRA has made 'commitment to politics'

Owen Bowcott, Ireland correspondent
Thursday March 9, 2006
The Guardian

The Provisional IRA has taken a "strategic decision to follow a political path" but dissident republicans still pose a threat to the security forces, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported yesterday.

The latest review of paramilitary activity and "security normalisation" was published as the British and Irish prime ministers met in Downing Street to examine options for reinvigorating the stalled Northern Ireland talks process.

Confirmation that the main republican movement is moving further away from violence was welcomed by both governments but received cautiously by the province's largest political group, the Democratic Unionist party.

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In its assessment, the Independent Monitoring Commission said the Provisional IRA "does not in our view present a terrorist threat". The leadership "has given instructions that the membership of PIRA should not engage in public disorder". The organisation had, the watchdog's report stated, "taken a strategic decision to follow a political path".

But dissident republicans, it warns, are a "continuing threat to the security forces", training members and acquiring equipment. "Their capacity for sustained campaigns is limited but they are prepared to resort to extreme violence." In some areas, such as South Armagh, the threat is deemed to be greater. "They are heavily engaged in organised crime," the commission notes. One small group, the Continuity IRA, last month issued a statement saying there would be "no decommissioning, no ceasefires and no surrender". It claimed responsibility for leaving explosive devices outside several Belfast and East Tyrone police stations.

The commission's assessment of loyalist paramilitaries was less clear cut. Various groups are involved in crime and drug dealing, while capable of mounting attacks on the security services. The report added, however, that "though none ... have taken strategic decisions similar to that taken by PIRA, we believe there are signs of a possible readiness to turn away from some of their present criminality."

The process of "security normalisation" in the province was also catalogued. It recorded that the number of troops deployed had fallen from 13,786 in June 2004 to 9,209 in January this year. Over the same period the number of hours flown by military helicopters had more than halved, from 1,651 to 766 hours. Seven military observation posts have been demolished along the border.

Welcoming the report, the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Hain, said: "This is another positive report and reinforces the view that compared to where the IRA was, there has been a sea change."

The DUP yesterday said the IMC comments would not detract from previous warnings that the Provisional IRA was still involved in criminality and intelligence gathering. "Our concern remains," a spokesman for the party said, "that until those activities have been dismantled we have a problem."

A further sign of the government's determination to scale down its security presence will come today, when the redundancy terms for up to 3,000 Royal Irish Regiment members are due to be announced. Some packages are expected to be worth up to £100,000. The DUP leader, Ian Paisley, has warned that generous severance packages for the soldiers are needed to restore unionist confidence in the political process.

The meeting between Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish premier, yesterday was originally supposed to mark the end of a deadline imposed for initiating talks between the political parties. Its significance was being downplayed.

In Belfast yesterday, the crown court declined a police request for a leading loyalist leader, Ihab Shoukri, to be sent to jail for breaching bail conditions. He was among 17 men seized when police stormed the Alexandra Bar in Tiger's Bay. They were alleged to have been at a UDA meeting. Mr Shoukri insisted he had nothing to do with it.

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