THE fatal attack in Omagh was deeply shocking but, in its own way, all too predictable. The chief constable of the PSNI, Matt Baggott, has spent much of the last year warning of the threat dissident republicans pose to his officers – much to the chagrin of many in Stormont, most notably Sinn Fein.
Indeed, just six weeks ago it was confirmed that Northern Ireland’s police service would receive an additional £200 million over the next four years to combat terrorism.
Dissident republican attacks have escalated sharply in the last two years. The killing of Ronan Kerr follows a series of failed attacks on the police across the north. In one such attack, in August, a 200lb car bomb was left outside the Strand Road police station in Derry.
No group claimed responsibility but it is almost certainly the work of one of the Real IRA, Óglaigh na hÉireann or the Continuity IRA.
Both the timing and the target of the latest attack are significant. Ronan Kerr was a Catholic born and raised in Omagh. Dissidents have targeted Catholic officers in an attempt to dissuade youngsters from joining the force. In January of last year, Peadar Heffron a well-known Gaelic sports player and police officer, lost his leg when a bomb placed under his car exploded.
Saturday’s attack is also part of a wider attempt to disrupt the Stormont elections, which are due to take place on 5 May. Paradoxically, the main beneficiaries of renewed violence are likely to be Sinn Fein – which can claim to represent non-violent republicanism – and extreme elements in the Democratic Unionist Party and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice.
Although political parties aligned to dissident republicans are unlikely to win any seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, there is evidence that these groups do enjoy a modicum of support. Last year, researchers from the University of Liverpool found that 14 per cent of northern nationalists sympathised with dissidents.
In the long-run, successfully tackling the dissident threat requires investment and jobs for these young people. Right now we can only hope that, just as in 1998, the car bomb attack in Omagh will lead to a backlash against those who want to drag Northern Ireland back to the dark ages.
This article appeared in the Scotsman 4 April