The murder of the journalist Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland on the night before Good Friday illustrates the fragility of peace in a region in which terrorist violence has remained persistent. Dissident Republicans' (1) were blamed for shooting her during rioting after police searches in Derry/Londonderry's Creggan area on the night of April 18, 2019. (1) It was the latest in a series of incidents that have raised the specter of a surge in terrorist violence in Northern Ireland.
On January 19, 2019, a bomb exploded outside the courthouse in Derry/Londonderry. It was a busy Saturday night in the city center, and a number of civilians, including young children, narrowly escaped injury. A group calling itself the IRA (Irish Republican Army, or Oglaigh na hEireann in Gaelic) later claimed in a statement that it had carried out the attack in Northern Ireland's second-largest city. The van used in the attack had been hijacked a short time prior to the explosion. (2) A statement issued to The Derry Journal newspaper by this 'New IRA' was redolent of old IRA rhetoric, suggesting, in typically verbose language, that it would "continue to strike at crown forces and personnel and their imperial establishment." The group warned those "who collaborate with the British that they are to desist immediately as no more warnings will be given." Interestingly, the group claimed that "all this talk of Brexit, hard borders, soft borders, has no bearing on our actions and the IRA won't be going anywhere. Our fight goes on." (3)
On March 5, 2019, a series of parcel bombs were discovered at the Compass Centre near Heathrow Airport, Waterloo railway station, and City Aviation House at London City Airport. The next day another suspect package was received at the University of Glasgow, where bomb-disposal officers carried out a controlled explosion. (4) The New IRA again claimed responsibility for sending these devices. (5)
Police in Northern Ireland have stated they believe the New IRA were also likely responsible for the murder of the investigative journalist Lyra McKee during rioting in the Creggan estate late on the evening of April 18, 2019. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) stated that a gunman fired shots toward police officers and that they were treating the attack as a "terrorist incident." (6) The BBC reported, "Mobile phone footage taken by a bystander during Thursday night's rioting appears to show a masked gunman crouching down on the street and opening fire with a handgun," mortally wounding McKee who was standing near a police vehicle. According to the BBC, police had entered the Creggan estate in an intelligence-led operation to search for weapons and ammunition out of concern "they could be used in the days ahead to attack officers." (7) A riot had ensued in which more than 50 gasoline bombs were thrown. (8)
While disturbing, this latest spike in terrorist activity must be seen in its broader context. Dissident republican activity has been ongoing ever since the dominant Provisional IRA split in 1986 over whether it should take its seats in Dail Eireann (the lower house of the Irish Parliament). (9) Several of its members left to form Republican Sinn Fein, a group that sprouted an armed group in the form of the Continuity IRA when the Provisionals later called a ceasefire in 1994. While negotiating terms of entry into the peace process, the Provisionals broke their ceasefire in February 1996 with a huge bomb attack on London's financial district. After reinstating their truce in July 1997, the Provisionals then split again, prompting the formation of the Real IRA, which killed 29 people and two unborn children in a car bomb attack in the small Northern Irish town of Omagh a year later. (10) Despite the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which brought an end to major hostilities between the mainstream loyalist and republican factions, both the Continuity IRA and Real IRA continued to reject the peace process and remain unbowed in their objective of ending British rule in Ireland by violent means. (11)
In 2012, the Real IRA merged with a loose confederation of smaller splinter groups, including the so-called Republican Action Against Drugs vigilante grouping, to form the New IRA. (12) The New IRA is regarded as the deadliest of all of the militant republican organizations operating in Northern Ireland today. Responsible for over 40 attacks since its formation, it also sprouted a political party in 2016 known as Saoradh. According to the outgoing chief constable of the PSNI, George Hamilton, there is "significant overlap between the leadership of both the New IRA and Saoradh... They are not quite one and the same. There are a number of people who are very senior in the New IRA who are also senior in the leadership of Saoradh." (13) In January 2019, The Times reported that the United Kingdom's security service MI5 had more than 700 officers stationed in Belfast to tackle the threat posed by dissident republican terrorism, with the chief threat seen as coming from approximately 40 members of the New IRA. (14) And MI5's numbers were reportedly being boosted further ahead of this Easter (Sunday, April 21) because of concern the group might carry out attacks to mark the IRA's Easter Rising. (15)
In light of the heightened media attention surrounding the activities of armed groups like the New IRA, this article provides an analysis of the Northern Ireland security situation. It examines the recent activity of militant Irish Republican groups, arguing that their violence is best understood not as a by-product of the uncertainty generated by Brexit but as a symptom of the imperfections in the peace process. Moreover, it makes the case that the persistent threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland must be assessed as a phenomenon that emanates from both Irish republicans and Ulster loyalists.
New IRA, Old Terrorism
Militant Irish republicans have been using explosives to draw attention to their radical agenda ever since dynamite was first used by members of the Fenian Brotherhood in London in the late 19th century. (16) The car bomb was first used by the IRA in the early 1970s, with the group's then Chief of Staff Sean MacStiofain calling it a weapon of the "utmost ferocity and ruthlessness." (17) Like other terrorist groups around the world, the bomb offered the Provisionals "a dramatic, yet fairly easy and often risk-free, means of drawing attention" to their cause. (18) The location of the January 2019 attack in Derry city center had echoes of the Provisional IRA's first major commercial bombing blitz in the city almost half a century earlier. Under the direction of the Officer Commanding of the Derry IRA, Martin McGuinness, (19) the campaign succeeded in causing massive disruption to the local economy, until the group realized that those most affected by the violence were the city's dominant nationalist community. Throughout the period...