Dissident Irish Republicans and the Murder of PC Kerr: A Law Enforcement View

Northern Ireland
By Arthur Hayes

In August 1995, when Gerry Adams, one of the two most prominent Irish Republican politicians of the last twenty years, said to a sympathetic crowd, “They have not gone away you know”. He was referring to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), a terrorist group which appeared about to be consigned to the history books with the establishment of a viable peace in Northern Ireland. Many thought that with decommissioning and the ceasefire, the men of violence would step away into obscurity, leaving the people of Northern Ireland to enjoy the benefits of a peaceful coexistence.

This view was not shared by many within the counter terrorist and policing community. Nor was it shared seemingly by the people who murdered Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Constable, Ronan Kerr, a Roman Catholic, on 2 April. Just as Winston Churchill said in 1922, as Ireland rushed toward one civil cataclysm,  “We see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging again”, now again the adherents of the violent revolutionary tradition in Ireland fill the news in the new Google cyberworld as the so called dissident Irish Republican terrorists strike.

Kerr, a Roman Catholic, was most likely murdered by other Northern Irish Roman Catholics who, according to PSNI detectives, used a grey plastic container with a mercury tilt switch and an estimated 500g of explosives. This method of attack is almost identical to two attacks on PSNI officers as they started their cars in 2010. Open source indications are that the technology used to construct those devices is very similar to that used by PIRA in the 1980s and 1990s. This would suggest that Republican veterans are providing their hard gained experience, technical know-how and perhaps access to some of the weapons and explosives allegedly put beyond use when PIRA ceased its campaign.

This may be substantiated by developments in the investigation into Kerr’s murder, with the discovery of a weapons cache including Kalashnikov rifles and explosives, possibly Semtex, on the evening of  5 April. The Kalashnikovs and Semtex were both operationally and symbolically key weapons in PIRA’s arsenal and the fact that such weapons have fallen into terrorist hands could mean that dissident Republicans have  access to old stores or pipelines to bring in the equipment from abroad,  either of which would be a major area of concern for police and  counter terrorism partners.

The weapons seizure was followed by the arrest of a Northern Irish man, aged 26, in Scotland, as he walked down a street  on  6 April and a second arrest of a 40 year old man in his car by police in Northern Ireland in the early hours of April 7 in connection with the weapons. The ages of the two men may be significant, as they bear a stunning similarity to the two men, Colin Duffy, aged 43 and Mark Quinsey, aged 23, who were charged with the murders of two British soldiers outside an army barracks in 2009, an attack claimed by the Real IRA, a prominent dissident group.

This appears to support the theory that a small number of alienated staunch Republicans, probably with extensive intelligence traces connected to violence, are effectively leading, training and facilitating a younger generation of men who still believe in the validity of the violent Republican tradition, despite the huge political and social gains made in the last fifteen years.

The peace process that started in the 1990s allowed the elected political representatives of all sides and factions to adopt peaceful means as the sole method of achieving political desires. The vast majority of the Irish population, both north and south of the border, remain totally opposed to the use of violence for political means, despite the bloody and bitter sectarian divide that has effectively blighted Ireland since the mid 16th Century. Yet, for a small percentage of the Republican community, the appeal of violence, coupled with the almost legendary myth-like idea that the only way to beat the British is to bomb them out, is too strong to resist.

This strain of thought harks back to the Marxist and Revolutionary Liberation struggle ideology that was fused with the aspirations of Irish nationalism in the late 1960s to become the philosophical bedrock of PIRA and its political manifestation, Sinn Fein. By joining what Althusser called the “Repressive State Apparatus”, Kerr was perceived by a small minority to be a traitor to his people, Roman Catholics, and his class, working class Irish people, all of whom for centuries have been under the heel of British imperialism.

Despite the unanimous condemnation of Kerr’s murder across Irish society, the aspiration of his killers remains the same, a united island of Ireland, totally free from Britain. The current dissident Irish Republican capability may be greatly diminished in comparison with that of PIRA in its operational prime, but the litany of shootings and planting of explosive devices by dissidents continues seemingly unabated by the best efforts of policing and intelligence agencies across a number of jurisdictions. Sadly, the appetite for politically motivated violence remains a reality in Northern Ireland. Adams was right:  they have not gone away. 


Arthur Hayes is a Senior Counter-Terrorism Officer with over 20 years’ experience. He has taken part in major counter-terrorism operations and intelligence gathering against a diverse range of targets, including Irish Republicans, Middle Eastern and domestic Islamic extremists.  


21 April 2011


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