One of the most senior counter-explosives officers in the British military has been sent to Northern Ireland to help plan the strategy to combat the rising tide of violence from dissident republicans.
Military and security officials met in Belfast yesterday to discuss increasing the number of bomb-disposal officers in the region in the face of the new threat.
The senior officer, with extensive experience of Afghanistan, is among teams of experts flying into Belfast to carry out assessments, and counter-IED (improvised explosive devices) specialists are now being regularly rotated between Helmand and Ulster.
The number of explosive specialists in Northern Ireland has risen to almost the same level as when the British military mission ended three years ago, including some of the most experienced in their field.
Personnel from the 321 EOD Squadron, the most decorated unit in the British Army, responsible for bomb disposal duties in Northern Ireland, “are now busier than they have been for years”, said a senior officer. “They are now out every day, the workload has gone up significantly and we are reaching the number of personnel we had at the end of Operation Banner [UK mission to Northern Ireland]. These numbers may well have to go up again.”
IEDs have caused most of the deaths and injuries of British forces in Afghanistan. More explosives specialists are being trained and millions of pounds are being spent on equipment to detect and disarm bombs.
The dissident campaign in Northern Ireland means that these already tight resources are being further stretched. Similarly MI5 has had to put more agents into the region, diverting them from monitoring Islamist terrorists.
The 22 bombings in the whole of last year has already been exceeded by 49 in the first eight months of this year. On Monday a primary school in Antrim sent 400 pupils home after an eight-year-old boy carried a pipe bomb into class.
But it is the extent of the sophistication being seen as the militants’ campaign gathers momentum which is causing the most concern. According to security and military sources the expertise has been brought over by former Provisional IRA bombmakers who have joined the ranks of the dissidents.
“This is not entirely surprising, that knowledge was always present among PIRA [Provisional IRA] members in places like South Armagh and we now appear to be seeing a transfer of technology. What is noticeable is the number of car bombs and booby traps which are being brought into play and how they are being armed. We are also seeing a degree of callousness in the use of ‘proxy bombs’ which we certainly did not see from PIRA for many years.”
Dissidents have used “proxy bombs” by hijacking taxis which have access to security installations and forcing drivers to transport explosive devices. A 150lb device was used to bomb the entrance of MI5 headquarters at Palace Barracks in Holywood. Another bomb, of 250lb, went off outside a police station in Derry.
Meanwhile a Catholic priest who has been vocal in condemning the violence of dissident republicans is to meet supporters of these groups who claim their families are being harassed by the police. Father Paddy O’Kane, from Derry, has agreed to the meeting after talks with the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, regarded as the political wing of the Real IRA, who carried out the Omagh bombing,
“People come every day with their pain, all we can do is listen,” he said. “It is just a blotting paper exercise. Those families are innocent, whatever their [dissident republican] supporters are doing. If they are in pain, the least I can do is listen to their pain.”