LONDON—Ten years on, the American-brokered Good Friday agreement, which laid the framework for ending 30 years of violence between Northern Ireland's Roman Catholics and Protestants, is rightfully considered proof positive that negotiations can bring entrenched sectarian wars to peaceful ends. Nevertheless, a recent and worrisome spate of violence by a small cadre of hard-core Catholic dissidents—splinter groups of the Irish Republican Army, which has abandoned armed revolt against British rule—is a reminder that the bad, old days of "the Troubles," which left 3,600 dead, are not completely consigned to history.
The province's chief constable says rebel activity is as high as it's been in six years. A main goal of the dissidents is to kill a Catholic police officer or prison guard to destabilize an increasingly successful effort to recruit more Catholics to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. In June, two Catholic members of the PSNI were injured in a landmine attack that may have proved lethal had the device properly triggered. Last November, two other Catholic officers were badly wounded in gun attacks. And one dissident group recently warned that it may soon target Customs workers and other civil servants as well.
Britain's domestic security agency, MI5, is taking the threat seriously. It's reported that 60 percent of its recent electronic intercepts have come from Irish dissidents—who number fewer than 100. That's a startling admission given MI5's current focus on the suspected 2,000 Islamic terrorists believed operating in Britain. Accordingly, MI5 has stepped up its security operations in the province.
To be sure, the peace process in Ulster continues to progress, albeit slowly. In May 2007, the Northern Ireland Assembly finally began operating after a power-sharing agreement was reached between the two largest parties: the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. That deal was reached after the DUP finally accepted that the IRA—which first announced a cease-fire 14 years ago—had indeed decommissioned its weapons, and Sinn Fein agreed to support the PSNI.
Historically, Catholics have distrusted and disliked the police. The PSNI's forerunner, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was overwhelmingly Protestant and considered antirepublican.
Following Sinn Fein's lead, Catholic acceptance of—and membership in—the police force is growing. Twenty-five percent of its officers are now Catholic. "The Catholic community is still suspicious of the police to some degree," says Adrian Guelke, a political scientist at Queen's University, Belfast. "But there is a greater willingness [among Catholics] to join the police."
Moreover, despite some DUP foot dragging on the issue, the unionists and Sinn Fein are near an agreement to allow oversight of the police and judiciary to be handed over from London's Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. That could ultimately—though not initially—lead to the policing portfolio going to a Sinn Fein minister. "That will happen, eventually," Guelke says. A police force overseen by a Catholic party would be a big blow to the terrorists, which is why they're trying to scuttle that eventuality.
Security forces believe there are around 80 hard-core members belonging to three breakaway groups: the Real IRA, which set off the bomb in the market town of Omagh in 1998, killing 29 people; Continuity IRA; and a newer faction, Oglaigh na hEireann. They're largely based in rural areas near the border with the Irish Republic to the south, where republicanism has deep, historic roots. The groups consider Sinn Fein a sellout for seeking a political rather than an armed solution to a divided Ireland.
Ironically, another reason the dissidents may be more active now is that the success of the peace process has given them a freer hand. Since setting aside its weapons and forsaking violence, the main IRA may be finding it harder to "police" the breakaway groups itself, Guelke says. "It's created something of a vacuum for the dissidents to exploit." Although the rebel factions are for now targeting other Catholics, there is some risk their actions could provoke a violent response from Protestant paramilitary groups, which remain on cease-fire but are still armed.