LONDON // A warning that the upcoming Conservative Party conference in Britain could be the target of a terrorist attack has London and Dublin expressing concerns about dissident Irish republican groups. Security sources confirmed to The National yesterday that money and staff originally earmarked to tackle Islamist terrorist groups in the UK have been diverted to counter the new threat from Ireland.
That danger is posed by three small but violent republican groups - the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and the "Warriors of Ireland". They have rejected the peace deal that led to the Provisional IRA and "loyalist" paramilitaries to enter into a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland a decade ago. Over the past two years, the activities of these determined dissidents have increased as they pursue their goal of a united Ireland.
So far this year, there have been 35 attacks by the dissidents compared with 22 for all of 2009. Three children were injured this month when a bomb in a wheelie bin in Lurgan, Ireland, exploded. The target was thought to be police officers lured to the area. Also this month, a police station guard escaped unharmed after a bomb attached to his car partly exploded and a police station and nearby buildings in Londonderry were damaged by a bomb driven to the area in a hijacked taxi.
At the weekend, Patrick Mercer, a former chairman of the House of Commons subcommittee on counterterrorism, told the BBC that sources in Northern Ireland had told him one of the groups planned "to attack the Tory party conference". Mr Mercer added: "Over the last three or four weeks there have been several very determined efforts to kill in Northern Ireland. "There are three groups in Northern Ireland which are planning to do something to catapult themselves into the headlines before the party conference season. They wish to kill by the end of the month.
"They have an aspiration to attack targets on the mainland, including the Conservative Party conference." That conference is to be held in October in Birmingham. A police spokesman confirmed that it was aware of increased activity by dissident republicans. He said the West Midlands counter-terrorism unit was keeping the threat to the conference - at which Conservative leader David Cameron will make his first appearance at a party conference since becoming prime minister - under constant review.
The Warriors of Ireland has been the most active group. It detonated the bomb outside the Londonderry police station and in April left a bomb outside MI5 headquarters in Northern Ireland. It is believed to be composed of no more than a couple of dozen radicals. An unnamed spokesman for the group told the Irish News this week: "The vast majority of our members are former members of the Provisional IRA" who consider the Warriors of Ireland an alternative to the status quo.
"In the future, we will target the British apparatus, should that be in Belfast, Birmingham or London. It's OK for people to say we don't have the capability - a year ago, they said we couldn't even detonate a bomb." The Real IRA, which was responsible for the Omagh bombing that killed 28 people in 1998, sparked the new round of violence in Northern Ireland when its members shot two soldiers at the Massereene army base 18 months ago.
A week after that, members of the Continuity IRA, who are largely based in Fermanagh and Armagh, killed a Northern Ireland police officer. The Real IRA and Continuity IRA are working together to increase the threat to security forces, according to the Independent Monitoring Commission. So far, the latest violence to emanate from Northern Ireland has been restricted to the province. The possibility that it could spread to the mainland has been described as "very worrying" by Laurence Robertson, the Conservative MP who chairs the Northern Ireland select committee, which is investigating the dissident groups.
"So far it has been contained to the province, but whether it is there or on the mainland, it is very worrying," he told The Observer newspaper. "We hope it is not yet another chapter, but it could be and has to be dealt with." Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland secretary, said in a statement that the government was monitoring the situation and claimed that there was now unprecedented co-ordination between the security services and police.
"We have made a substantial number of arrests and we are bearing down on them," he said. "But we do not underestimate the threat they represent." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org