Different IRA factions may have come together to co-ordinate their actions in two deadly attacks this week.
In an unprecedented assault, the ‘Real IRA’/Oglaigh na hEireann shot dead two soldiers at the Massereene Barracks in Antrim, west of Belfast on Saturday night.
Less than 48 hours later, a member of the PSNI police was killed by a Continuity IRA sniper as he responded to a call in Craigavon, south of Belfast.
The actions horrified the political establishment, but by Thursday had provoked a determined response.
The first indication of the impending crisis came from PSNI Chief Hugh Orde last week, when he raised the republican “threat” level to “severe”.
He then confirmed that a murderous SAS-linked ‘intelligence’ regiment, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, had been redeployed to the North of Ireland.
The SSR was formed from the 14th Intelligence Company, one of the lead British Army units responsible for controlling the unionist death squads.
The regiment’s return has been blamed for triggering subsequent events.
On Saturday night, as a consignment of food was being delivered at the gates of the British Army’s Massereene base in County Antrim, two members of the ‘Real IRA’ suddenly attacked the heavily fortified base.
The full frontal assault caught both troops and the base’s armed security guards by surprise. After two bursts of gunfire, two soldiers were fatally wounded and two other soldiers were wounded. Two food service workers also lay injured.
News of the attack filtered out in a drip-feed manner, amid rumours and contradictions. It was several hours before it was finally confirmed that the British Army had suffered two casualties, and that the IRA pair had escaped.
The news stunned the Dublin and London governments and infuriated unionists.
British Direct Ruler Shaun Woodward condemned the shootings as “an act of criminal barbarism”. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, described the attacks as “evil and cowardly”.
26-County Taoiseach Brian Cowen criticised what he said was a “tiny group of evil people” who would not undermine the will of the people of Ireland.
DUP leader Peter Robinson described those involved as “crazed gunmen”, while his colleague, Assembly member David Simpson, spoke of “vermin”.
Jim Allister, the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, condemned the “dastardly IRA murders” and insisted there was “a mutual affinity between all the strands of the IRA”.
But Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness insisted the “war is over”. He described the attack as “totally and absolutely wrong”.
“I was a member of the IRA but that war is over now. The people responsible for last night’s incident are clearly signalling that they want to resume or restart that war. Well, I deny their right to do that.”
Significantly, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams also said the party supported the PSNI in their bid to capture the ‘Real IRA’ unit.
“The police also have a responsibility to give leadership and to behave at all times in a transparent and accountable manner. The British government has a duty to uphold the new political arrangement and the peace process,” the West Belfast MP added.
However, Ruairi O Bradaigh, president of Republican Sinn Fein, took a sharply contrary view. He said that “as long as the British government and British occupation troops remain in Ireland there will be Irish people to oppose their presence here”.
But with the North still reeling, there was a further shock on Monday night, with news of an ambush in a Craigavon housing estate in which a member of the PSNI was shot dead.
The attack was quickly claimed in the name of the Continuity IRA, the organisation’s first ever fatal attack on the Crown forces in almost 13 years of armed struggle.
Where so many previous attempts had failed or been aborted, the two deadly republican attacks in quick succession suddenly appeared to herald a return to conflict.
The situation had become intense by Tuesday morning. A sense of direct threat appeared to grip the political establishment, and a second, much more determined torrent of condemnation was unleashed.
“This is a battle of wills between the political class and the evil gunmen and the political class will win,” the DUP leader Peter Robinson, declared.
Martin McGuinness, a former commander of the Provisional IRA, standing side-by-side with Robinson and PSNI Chief Hugh Orde at Stormont, made a historic denunciation of former comrades, who he said were “traitors to the island of Ireland”.
They had “betrayed the political desires, hopes and aspirations of all of the people who live on this island”.
That statement was strongly welcomed by unionists and the British government, but it shocked republican hard-liners.
Republican Sinn Fein spokesman Richard Walsh responded by saying: “I think he’d need to look closer to home for who are the traitors, frankly”.
The Eirigi party did not comment on Mr McGuinness’s statement, but pointed out that it had no connections to any armed group.
“The only threat we pose is to the British occupation of Ireland,” said spokesperson Breandan Mac Cionnaith.
“While that British occupation continues there will always be people willing to resist.”
He said nationalists would never accept the legitimacy of the PSNI.
A heavy-handed policing operation in Craigavon saw frequent disturbances. Raids were carried out on several houses in Drumbeg, near the scene of Monday evening’s shooting, as republican youths rioted.
Shaun Woodward promised that Orde would receive “the resources he needs” to deal with the threat but that there was no desire to end “normal policing”, or bring troops back onto the streets.
The raids led to the arrest on Tuesday of a 37-year-old man and a 17-year-old youth. Images taken from a police helicopter of the teenager’s arrest, surrounded by dozens of armed PSNI officers, appeared in news publications around the world. The message was clear: the fight-back had begun.
Peace vigils were quickly organised by the trade unions on Wednesday, bringing thousands onto the streets in Belfast, Lisburn, Newry, Downpatrick and Derry. By Thursday, police chiefs from both sides of the border were meeting to discuss the security response.
Meanwhile, the PSNI was dealing with numbers of hoaxes and alerts. The landmark Crumlin Road Courthouse in north Belfast was set ablaze, while there were reports of a large device being found near a British Army base in County Down.
In the larger towns and cities, uniformed police patrolled key intersections armed with rifles and wearing flak jackets.
But where Sinn Fein had been accused by some in the British press of using “weasel words” early in the week, the new message coming from all of the parties was of unanimity.
By Thursday night, there was confidence among the North’s politicians that the storm had been weathered and that calm had largely been restored. However, there was still concern at reports that the new IRA factions had begun recruiting at a greatly accelerated pace.
Speaking after a meeting with Brian Cowen and 26-County Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin in Dublin yesterday, Gerry Adams insisted the groups had a limited capacity.
“They showed that recently and three people are now dead, a number of people are injured. And the fact is that the rest of us, and that’s right across this island, have said we don’t want it,” he said.
“That’s why I make the point that they shouldn’t have any room to breathe, that no one should support them, give succour to them, join them or work with them.”
And he emphasised that the attacks had “created an unprecedented degree of unity” between the political parties in the North.
“I am confident that, without minimising the challenges, that the popular resolve will prevail and that the process of change will continue.”