A bomb which exploded less than a mile from the border on Monday has delivered an IRA message about Britain’s plans to reinforce partition as a result of Brexit. The blast was heard on both sides of the border.
In a media campaign organised in response, the PSNI laid the blame on both the New IRA and the Continuity IRA before settling on the Continuity IRA. They said the device which exploded was a “secondary” one which detonated as a British army bomb disposal team were standing near the site of the blast, at Wattle Bridge in Fermanagh.
The CIRA are understood to have planted the booby-trap device to strike members of the Crown Forces after tricking them into searching fields in the remote area of countryside, close to the border with Cavan. The bomb was planted by a gate.
The attack points to a continuing capacity of IRA groups to mount sophisticated actions in a choice of locations, including rural border areas. Unusually, no information was released on the size of the bomb. It is thought that high-powered explosive was used in line with other similar devices.
Politicians on all sides condemned the incident, but independent councillor John McCluskey also condemned the PSNI for statements which he said “don’t give any real information” including the location of the attack.
Mr McCluskey said that there was very real concerns about a “sham peace” and what would happen to the border community, which straddles the border, after Brexit.
“I cross across the border at least ten times a week, sometimes more”, he said.
“But if they put any structure or checkpoint at that border I will simply refuse to engage with it. I don’t know anyone who would, I want peace but not that kind of peace, not a sham peace.
“We need a real peace and what Brexit has done, especially in a border community like this, is make people of all ages questioning what we have now.
“If I was stopped at a road block now, at my time of life I would be angry, now how would that impact on a generation of young people”, he added.
New PSNI chief Simon Byrne conducted five media interviews in a single day, calling for increased resources and blaming Brexit. A sense of crisis was reinforced by an announcement of plans by the 26 County Garda police to introduce a third armed unit to provide a 24-hour military-style deployment across the border region.
The sudden arrest of two men in Dublin on IRA charges also suggested a desperate attempt to get any potential threats off the street.
Condemning the attack, PSNI Deputy Chief Stephen Martin said people feel the situation in the North is becoming “more entrenched”. He said the level of activity by the Continuity IRA “has increased this year” but also noted that the “have been present for a long time”.
His superior said Brexit could become a “trigger” for people to join up with breakaway IRA groups. Byrne also admitted that anything that resembled new checkpoints would be a target.
“We couldn’t police the border 20 years ago with military support and I can’t see how we can do it now particularly with a reduced head count of officers,” Byrne said. He also blamed the “political vacuum” caused by the collapse of the Stormont Assembly.
In this context, the police had become the “shock absorbers” for “failures elsewhere”. Using technology or checkpoints in the Border area was “simply not practical”, and he did not see how some of the suggestions could work in “that sort of rural environment”.
“What sort of technology – some form of camera possibly, be it CCTV or a number-plate reader, is that going to survive in that sort of environment? We’ve seen in the past where people have been eager, as soon as a camera has gone up, to chop it down again,” he said.
“There are over 300 crossings that we’d have to police on a daily basis to make that effective. We have less than 7,000 officers here these days, and we simply don’t have enough people, even with a recent budget uplift, to cope with some of the Brexit challenges to actually police that.”
He stressed the geographical challenges of policing an area where, at times, it is unclear where the border lies.
“Who takes jurisdiction in some of those imprecise locations, and indeed in some of the other incidents that we deal with, a border might go through the middle of a farmer’s field. Realistically it is very difficult.”
Byrne added that “the minute we go into that area in a way that looks like checkpoints.. we become a target”, and he warned of a return to “paramilitary style” policing.
In the past, breakaway IRA groups and their supporters have said armed actions will continue while partition continues, and are not a direct result of the new crisis over Brexit.
“Armed struggle continues to exist,” Saoradh’s Paddy Gallagher said this week. “It’s not something that doesn’t happen anymore. There are still women and men that are willing and capable of carrying out acts of armed resistance against the British state.”
But he said checkpoints would likely provide a target: “I can only assume, judging by history, that their focus would be manned or fixed British installations on the border.”
Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson warned that any moves to reimpose a border, whatever side ultimately takes the blame for it, will be viewed as inflammatory and offensive by the broad general public.
“I’ve talked to dentists, doctors, nurses and others, who have said, ‘We are not allowing our children, our grandchildren to be offended by this’.
“I do think, in terms of whether it’s civil disobedience or whatever that people will react. It’s offensive and will be offensive to anyone who is asked to produce their ID or passport.”
She said the EU taskforce that conducted Brexit negotiations with London is “well-apprised of the red rag to a bull” that a re-emergent border would represent.
She said the PSNI had admitted “that if you build this infrastructure, this post, to check the standards of trade going across into your single market, someone will come along and fire a stone. Then somebody will fire a brick and then before you know it you’ll need somebody in there to try and prevent this happening.
“And then somebody will come along and hit it with something more. And here we are back in a situation where you’ll be saying we have to put personnel in who are armed or whatever to protect our single market and we go back into a spiral that this place, this society doesn’t want to go to.”