by David Granville
THE DEADLY attack by dissident republicans in early March on the Massereene British army barracks in North Down, and the killing in Craigavon just two days later of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll, are among a number of unwelcome and worrying developments to have afflicted the Northern Ireland Good Friday process in recent months.
Although small in number and lacking anything even vaguely resembling popular support -- as the strength of mainstream republican denunciation, the numerous peace vigils and the mass demonstrations led by the trade union movement which followed graphically illustrated -- the dissident threat, unlike the 'Provisional' IRA, has not gone away. Nor is it likely to do so in the foreseeable future.
Over the past year, anti-agreement dissidents associated with either the 'Continuity IRA' or the 'Real IRA', the latter group having been responsible for the Omagh bombing, have been on a recruitment drive, upping both their rhetoric and armed activity.
Prior to the murder of Stephen Carroll dissidents had made a number of unsuccessful attempts to kill a PSNI officer. Several police installations have also come under attack over the past twelve months.
Of even greater concern, in early February, the Real IRA were forced to abandon a 300 lb bomb in Castlewellan. The bomb had been destined for a British army barracks in the north.
In short, dissident republicans with an armed agenda -- there are others, like the group eirigi, which oppose the Good Friday and St Andrews process but are committed to pursuing their objectives politically -- do pose a threat to the peace process. This is not in dispute.
However, serious concerns have been raised by a range of politicians, parties, human rights and campaigning organisations on both sides of the Irish Sea about the way in which the British ministers and PSNI chief constable Hugh Orde have chosen to deal with the problem and its potentially negative impact on the Good Friday process.
The announcement, in early March, by PSNI chief constable Hugh Orde that he was calling upon the support of undercover British army intelligence unit, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), to take part in the fight against the dissidents is a point in question.
While unionists of various hues have greeted this highly contentious development with unalloyed glee and enthusiasm, the move has caused grave concern and anger among human-rights groups and a wide spectrum of political forces and campaigning organisations supportive of the Good Friday process.
To cut to the chase, past involvement and history of special intelligence forces in Northern Ireland - military, police or MI5/6 - is a far from being happy one.
The involvement of all branches in the direction and encouragement of both loyalist and republican groups to acts of violence and murder is now well documented.
Should readers of this column believe that such a statement to be little more than a malicious assertion by a partisan commentator, I refer them to the various Lord Stevens reports and to that of the Canadian High Court Judge Peter Cory, full details of which can be found on the website of the Pat Finucane Centre (www.patfinucanecentre.org).
Given the apparent high level of infiltration of so-called dissident (and loyalist) groups, it is both legitimate, and unfortunately necessary, to raise questions about what police, security chiefs and ministers knew about the most recent lethal attacks on British military and PSNI personnel -- including what, if any, prior knowledge they had of these operations and whether infiltrators or paid state agents were involved in either their planning or direction.
Other important questions which need to be answered include whether the SRR, like its earlier incarnation, the notorious and discredited Force Research Unit (FRU), will run agents and organise and direct murders, through these agents and whether former agents of the FRU are serving in the new force
Such concerns have been compounded by strong rumours that the SRR, which operates outside of the scrutiny of Northern Ireland politicians and the democratically accountable six-county PSNI police board, is under the command of brigadier Gordon Kerr.
This seems barely possible given Kerr's controversial background and history in the six counties. However, the rumours have persisted and, due to the secretive and covert nature of the unit, it is not possible to either confirm or deny them.
A former commanding officer of the FRU between 1987-1991, Kerr has a long and murky track record in Northern Ireland. In November 2000, he went on record to a Scottish newspaper, admitting that 'his team' had been involved in conspiracies to kill at least 14 civilians.
Despite the fact that the FRU is widely believed to have been involved at least twice as many unlawful killings during its time in the six counties, it was a significant admission.
Kerr also gave evidence in support of the notorious loyalist killer and British agent Brian Nelson and has been implicated in the murder of the Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane.
Although officially disbanded in 1991, the unit appears only to carried on working in the six counties under a different name, the Joint Services Group. The current version, the SRR, appears to have emerged from Sandhurst in 2005, after which it went on to undertake covert operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where it is believed to have been used to run covert groups targeting opposition to government and occupation forces.
As if this didn't ring enough alarm bells, it has also emerged recently that the unit was involved in the security operation that ended in the killing of an innocent man (Jean Charles de Menezes) at Stockwell tube station in 2005.
Given the history of collusion between British intelligence and security forces, it is hardly surprising that the re-introduction of covert military unit, combined with the presence just outside Belfast, of the biggest MI5 base outside of its London HQ, is a source of considerable disquiet well beyond nationalist and republican communities and their political representatives.
Such disquiet will only have been deepened by the knowledge that, as an former MI5 operative in Northern Ireland, the role of the current director general of MI5, Jonathan Evans,was to act as the link between the organisation and the Force Research Unit.
Like the SRR, MI5 is outside local political control, taking its orders directly from intelligence chiefs and government ministers.
All of this raises very serious concerns over the future of the Good Friday process and threatens to undermine the hard work already undertaken to bring about an agreed system of policing and justice in Northern Ireland under the terms of the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements -- a process which is far from complete.
The involvement of the SSR, like that of MI5 which, as in the rest of the British state, takes the 'national' lead in intelligence gathering, undermines both the authority and accountability of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and that of the policing board responsible for overseeing such matters in the six counties.
The decision of the chief constable to 'call in' the covert military intelligence unit without first consulting political leaders and the policing board, raises further questions over the integrity and suitability of Orde to continue in his role as chief constable.
If all communities in Northern Ireland are to have confidence in the new policing arrangements it is essential that full accountability and transparency is built into the system, including the full devolution of justice and policing powers.
There is no place for political violence in Northern Ireland. A process based on Good Friday and St Andrews agreements is in place and must be allowed to run its course in full.
At the heart of these agreements are institutions and mechanisms whose objective is to ensure that devolved government is able to function in the six counties and that civil rights and equality are available to everyone there.
However, while there can be no justification for political violence, it is equally unacceptable that covert and democratically unaccountable groups like the SRR are deployed in the six counties, where their involvement in combating political violence will always be shrouded in dread and mistrust by nationalists and republicans.
There can also be no 'security' justification for the presence of armed British forces in any part of Ireland. Their removal at the earliest opportunity would assist enormously in the building of new, peaceful relationships, based on equality and mutual respect - both between the communities of Northern Ireland and between people throughout the entire island of Ireland. For those, like the Connolly Association in Britain, who are committed to ending Britain's presence in Ireland and to supporting the quest for Irish unity and independence, it has been important to acknowledge that the removal of British troops and the removal of covert intelligence units like the SRR, or even the closure of the MI5 base at Holywood, would not, on their own, solve the problem of partition.
Such measures would, however, serve to remove, at a stroke, significant focal points for dissident republican activity.
Instead, the British government and Hugh Orde appear, like so many that have gone before them, to have chosen the path most likely to act as a propaganda boon and recruiting sergeant for the current manifestations of physical force republicanism, while making life as difficult as possible for Sinn Fein, a republican party firmly within the Good Friday tent.
The lessons of history seem hard to learn in some quarters. Let us hope that we all don't live to regret it.
The above article originally appeared in the Morning Star
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2009 David Granville