The killing of two British soldiers due to deploy to Afghanistan this weekend by Dissident Republican terrorists this weekend in Northern Ireland should act as a stark reminder to the Obama Administration of the folly of allowing hope to overcome operational realities. In the incident, two soldiers were killed, with more soldiers and civilians wounded while waiting for a Dominos pizza delivery. The two wounded civilians were the delivery drivers – it is entirely possible that the terrorists knew that the soldiers would come to meet them, and deliberately targeted them.
The Northern Ireland peace process has not been peaceful. Dissident Republicans (DRs) have been attempting to kill British soldiers literally since an agreement was reached. Robbed of the more skilled terrorists, the dissident organisations such as the Continuity IRA (represented politically by Republican Sinn Fein), Real IRA (represented politically by the 32 County Sovereignty Movement) and the Irish National Liberation Army (the INLA, who are an old-standing terrorist organization that never accepted the peace process, but are increasingly focused on organized crime) have continued to mount firearms-based close quarter attacks as well as deploying bombs of various sizes, including multi-hundred pound vehicle borne bombs designed to achieve an Omagh-like ‘spectacular’. The recent Close Quarter Assassination attempts have all been RIRA, while both CIRA and RIRA have been attempting to achieve success with IEDs. Until now, through a mix of operational success and luck on the part of the authorities, to whom Sinn Fein attest to ally themselves with, and a lack of trained skill by the dissidents, they had not been successful. However, under the Patton Report which provided the road map for the redesign of policing in Northern Ireland in a peaceful environment, the ability to counter terrorist activity has been seriously reduced, while the dissidents have room to learn and improve.
The Patton Report, created by a team led by Chris Patton, the man who orchestrated the orderly return of Hong Kong to the Chinese, was written to answer a question, “What should a police force in Northern Ireland look like once there is no terrorist threat.” For political expediency, the peace process was the trigger for reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary into the Police Force in Northern Ireland. Part of those changes was to strip responsibility for counter-dissident republican intelligence operations from the PSNI an action that broke the will of what was Special Branch, as their raison d’etre was gone; Loyalist Paramilitaries are criminals dressed in political clothing, and a robust organized crime policing approach is sufficient to match that threat.
Some years have gone by, and the focus for counter-terrorism has been overseas. Meanwhile, the dissident republican threat has been building, and the Chief Constable characterizes the threat as the highest it has been since the cease fire, the reason that Special Forces (the Special Reconnaissance Regiment) were asked to deploy assets in support of the PSNI in limiting that threat. The terrorist threat in Northern Ireland was not and is not gone; rather it was simply reduced for a while. No-one foresees a return to the worst of the bad old days, but there will be trials ahead, and it is certain to get worse before it gets better. With a greater terrorist threat at home, the British military is going to be under pressure to push certain specialist assets to support the response to this threat.
Patton was implemented to drive a political process forward within the context of armed conflict; it was a necessary step, but one that was rushed across the board. The response was driven by the political process rather than by matching the necessary capabilities to the threats. An honest assessment of ongoing threats and the capabilities required to counter them will be critical as the Obama Administration makes political decisions about operational necessities in Iraq; that honest assessment must inform the decision making more than simple agendas of either hawks or doves. The mistakes of the Blair Government must act as stark warning of prioritizing hope and politics over realities and threats.