Counter-Terrorism: Provisional Failures


April 22, 2009: The Real IRA, a dissident Irish Republican paramilitary group, shot and killed two British Army engineers at an army barracks in Antrim, Northern Ireland, last month. While some have expressed fears that the attacks by splinter IRA groups hail a return to the bitter fighting of late 20th century Northern Ireland, this is unlikely. Since the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement over a decade ago, and the dumping of all of the Provisional IRA's (PIRA) weapons in 2005, such terror attacks in Northern Ireland have become the exception rather than the rule. The Real IRA was formed, in the aftermath of the Good Friday deal, by disaffected Republicans, who felt betrayed by the Provisionals' and Sinn Fein. At the time, there was a lot of talk about how this smaller, but still dangerous group could perpetuate the Irish conflict well into the 21st century. Fortunately, this has not come to pass for several reasons. 

The first is popular support. During the height of "The Troubles", the PIRA held a great deal of popular support of the North's Catholic communities, which provided a continual supply of new, embittered recruits to join their ranks. But now, people are sick of over 30 years of terrorism and really haven't got the stomach for another 30. The RIRA has some strongholds in Armagh and a few other areas that are historically hard line, but very little outside of that. 

The second issue is manpower. With a massive lack of popular support, the splinter groups are only able to maintain around 100 or so active members, as opposed to the 1,500 the PIRA was able to field in the '80s and '90s. Finally, incompetence, informants, and an inability to obtain sizeable quantities of weapons and explosive have combined to make the RIRA and related groups into more of a nuisance than a real threat to the Irish peace process. The RIRA has proven to be riddled with British snitches, which usually means that the security services know exactly what their members are going to do and are able to stop attacks before they get off the ground. 

Finally, the issue of arms has particularly crippled the splinter groups. In the beginning, the RIRA was able to steal or loot weapons from the many IRA arms dumps that were distributed throughout Ireland. But most of these weapons are now outdated or in bad conditions from years of storage in underground bunkers, or hard usage during attacks, and need to be replaced. Almost all of the group's effort to import large quantities of weapons from either France or Eastern Europe have failed, most often as the result of "sting" operations set up by British intelligence and foreign police services. 

The other problem that splinter groups have to deal with is the geography of Ireland. Unlike the Egyptian-Gaza border or the divide between Mexico and the United States, Ireland is an island, meaning that digging tunnels and avoiding customs officials is very difficult. Also, Irish and British police services are infinitely more honest and difficult to bribe than either the Mexican or the Egyptian police, taking away another possible method of smuggling. The Provisionals were able to overcome this during their  30 year run, and built up the most impressive guerrilla arsenal in Western Europe. But the Provos were also described by their British adversaries as resourceful, skilled, and adaptive. With the RIRA having so far displayed few of these qualities, it can be assumed that their threat to the current stability in Northern Ireland is minimal at most and negligible at best. With little support, no new recruits, and an armory of aging, ineffective weapons, it seems Ireland's guerrilla days may be over forever. -- Rory Walkinshaw



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