Though nobody has claimed the weekend bomb attack on the North’s police, it has all the hallmarks of republicans, says Dieter Reinisch.
While no group has yet claimed the bomb attack on the PSNI and the ATO in Wattle Bridge, Co Fermanagh, the target and the deployed tactics point to militant republicans.
The bomb was the fifth attempt to kill a police officer in Northern Ireland this year.
Fermanagh is known for militant republicans. In 2009, the PSNI warned that villages Donagh and Newtownbutler had become “no-go-areas” due to the high intensity of militant republican activities.
Then, the main threats were the Real IRA (RIRA) and the Continuity IRA (CIRA).
There are now three republican groups involved in paramilitary activities. The New IRA (NIRA) is the biggest and most capable.
The smaller CIRA, however, attempted an attack on the PSNI in Co Armagh in July, and Arm na Poblachta is believed to have a small presence in Fermanagh.
Since January, the NIRA has claimed responsibility for a car bomb outside the Derry courthouse, a series of letter bombs in England and Scotland, the killing of Lyra McKee (during riots in Creggan), and an attempted attack on a PSNI officer in east Belfast.
The organisation formed in 2012, when former Provisional IRA (PIRA) members merged with the Derry/Strabane-based Republican Action Against Drugs and sections of the RIRA.
Its origins, however, stretch back to the decommissioning of the PIRA in 2005 (see Irish Examiner, April 27, 2019).
In late July, the smaller CIRA lured the PSNI to the outskirts of the Drumbeg estate, in Craigavon, Co Armagh. A previously placed mortar device failed to explode.
It was the first notable attack by the CIRA since they detonated a small amount of Semtex just before the Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) Easter commemoration in the Kilwilkee estate of the neighbouring town, Lurgan, on March 30, 2013.
The north Armagh unit is arguably the last pocket of the CIRA; though individual supporters remain active throughout the whole island.
In an attempted show of strength, the CIRA fired a volley of shots during the RSF commemoration in Carrickmore, Co Tyrone, during Easter 2019.
In June 2008, the CIRA injured two police officers via a landmine in Roslea, less than 10 miles from Wattle Bridge, the location of yesterday’s bomb.
Later that year, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported CIRA activity in nearby Lisnaskea and Newtownbutler.
However, CIRA and RSF lost their support in Fermanagh following a devastating split in 2010.
Fermanagh broke from the movement. CIRA has not been active since then, and RSF maintains no active cumann in the area, either. Nonetheless, the CIRA should not be ruled out as the group behind the recent attack.
A previously unknown group, named Arm na Poblachta, has emerged recently. The group has been blamed for a series of smaller attempted attacks in the Greater Belfast area over the past year.
While little is known about this group, it is believed that they have a small core of members in Fermanagh.
Neither the timing, nor the location of the bomb attack should come as a surprise.
The use of hoax devices to lure the PSNI into remote parts along the border is a frequent tactic employed by militant republicans.
The attack comes immediately after the 50th anniversaries of the battle of the Bogside, the burning of Bombay Street, and the deployment of the British army to Ireland.
Similarly, the January car bomb by the Derry Brigade of the NIRA came on the centenary of the Soloheadbeg ambush.
The most recent attack in Wattle Bridge provides several important observations for the assessment of today’s militant republicans: First, despite the high-intensity of intelligence activities, republicans are able to continue a low-intensity armed campaign, and have done since 2008.
While observers had hoped for a rethink among militant republicans after the death of Lyra McKee, I argued, in this paper, that the support for groups like the NIRA would be unaffected.
Unfortunately, the attempted killings of PSNI officers in Belfast, Armagh, and Fermanagh, over the summer, have confirmed this.
Second, the most recent campaign, initiated with a car bomb in January, has introduced a range of different tactics, including car bombs, hoax devices, booby-traps, shootings, and letter bombs.
The main activities still focus on Derry and Belfast. The attempted attacks in Armagh and Fermanagh, however, indicate that republican groups are expanding their operational areas.
Hence, this recent regional spread, and the variety of tactics deployed, show that republican militants operate in an increasingly sophisticated way, through a growing network of supporters.
Third, the location of the Fermanagh bomb attack, close to the Irish border, indicates that republicans use the Republic of Ireland as a safe hinterland, as was the case during the Troubles.
While there will be no return to the mass violence of previous decades, a no-deal Brexit, and a subsequently imposed hard border, may provoke similar attacks along the border in the future.
Dieter Reinisch is a historian at the Institute for Social Movements in Bochum, and a fellow at the Institute für Advanced Study, Central European University, in Budapest.