With three children left injured and no doubt traumatised by the most recent dissident attack the scale of the dissident threat is becoming the subject of much public discussion. However, the treatment of it seems to owe more to the 1980's than the realities of 2010. So what is the situation?
1. The dissident organisations are pursuing a strategy which is described as the three Ps - policing, parades and prisoners. The events of the last six weeks have shown how these three can be brought to bear at one time.
2. The dissident threat has grown. For example last year, the dissidents were able to organise/encourage sustained rioting in one place on one day, Ardoyne. This year they were able to do so in a number of areas for a number of days e.g. New Lodge, Ardoyne, Broadway, Ormeau Road (as well as elsewhere outside of Belfast). The most significant thing of note is the apparent growth in Belfast. Rioting has always been used as a means of identification of potential recruits in the past and no doubt will be again.
How has this growth been achieved? Part of it is disillusionment, whatever Sinn Fein may claim a United Ireland is no closer and the socio-economic conditions have changed little in republican areas. This provides fertile ground for the "what's changed" argument? Part of it has been through 'punishment' attacks. The culture of non-co-operation with police and more importantly willingness to testify against people in court was always going to be difficult to overcome. Secondly, the criminal justice system as a whole (not just the police) provide a very poor service as regards anti-social and low level crime. Dissidents are taking advantage of this weakness. Part of it is smoke and mirrors, short-term dodgy deals with crime gangs or groups of anti-social youth were made to make themselves look bigger.
3. This growth needs to be kept in perspective. It remains limited. The type of operation being organised is on the lower end of the risk scale for the organisations themselves e.g. under-car bombs and proxy bombs are simply easier for a terrorist organisation to conduct. Under-car bombs are small, easy to transport, quickly planted and provide the opportunity for a long-get-away time. Using a taxi-driver to drive the bomb to its target again reduces the risk to the terrorist themselves. Therefore, they do not yet have the confidence or capability to launch higher risk operations. The fortunate failure of the under-car bombs to work is an example of this still restricted capability.
4. They remain weakened by division. There are two Real IRAs. The CIRA seems well on the way of following its example. Some degree of co-ordination between groups is going on but the levels of distrust around infiltration limits it. The Republican Network for Unity is often eyed as the mechanism through which this has been achieved. However the confluence of dissidents in the same part of Maghaberry should not be overlooked.
5. This period of intense activity has come at a price for the dissident organisations. There are a dozen before the courts in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on alleged dissident activities. Guns etc have also been recovered. Rioters are also being put before the courts too. They have by no means getting away with it - it has potentially cost them in terms of personnel and equipment.
6. They did not stick to their plan. The original intention had been to organise serious rioting on 12th July followed by a series of murderous attacks leading to a repetition of serious disorder in Londonderry during the Relief celebrations (held this year on 14th August). Stage 1 worked, Stage 2 didn't (thankfully) and Stage 3 got cancelled. The Maghaberry prison deal has provided them with their way out of the plan but it should not be overlooked that they did not implement what they intended.
The real test will be in the next six months, will the same level of activity be sustained. If they do manage to maintain that sort of level and are successful in their murderous intent then the dissidents will have made an advance but will remain a significant way off past levels of republican terrorist.