An explosion outside a courthouse in Northern Ireland could be the start of a wave of deadly violence in the province, as a terror group seeks to exploit Brexit tensions, the security services fear.
A car bomb was exploded in Londonderry earlier this month that was crudely built with gas canisters but the detonator was possibly Semtex, a plastic explosive favoured by the provisional IRA.
No one was injured in the blast, but it has rattled everyone from police to locals who worry about a return to The Troubles, a period where more than 3000 people were killed and thousands more injured.
Five men were initially arrested but were later released without charge.
While there was a low level of terror activity last year, British counter-terrorism chiefs are worried a group called New IRA will seek to exploit fears of a hard border between UK controlled Northern Ireland and Ireland, which is part of the European Union.
A hard border would include customs and border controls and could inflame tensions and threaten the Good Friday Agreement which made such controls and security checkpoints invisible.
It would be likely if the UK crashed out of the EU on March 29 without a transition deal in place.
The Times reported the New IRA is made up of at least 40 hardcore members who sought to revive conflict on the island and would be “reckless in its approach”. Formed in 2012, the New IRA was the result of a merger of the Real IRA, splinter groups and republicans not happy with Sinn Fein’s political stance.
The UK spy agency MI5 has an astonishing 20 per cent of its workforce in Belfast as part of a huge intelligence operation, with more than 700 officers there already.
“There is a reason MI5 has about 20 per cent of its total strength in Belfast and the [car bombing] was a timely reminder of that reason,” a counter-terrorism source told The Times.
The New IRA is said to be behind a number of revenge attacks and extortion rackets and despite having an anti-drugs stance, questions linger over its links to drug gangs.
A group linked to the new IRA told The Sunday Times they hoped the border would be “hard as hell” and confirmed suspicions they see Brexit as an “opportunity”.
Northern Ireland security journalist Eamonn McDermott told the ABC the group weren’t capable of carrying out attacks like the Provisional IRA but “the danger is somebody could get killed”.
“Their argument is as long as the British are here, they have a right to fight,” Mr McDermott said.
“Brexit could put a border back there, a hard border, it could strike a chord among young people who realise there is a problem — there is a border there they don’t like or want,” he said.
Reports in the UK have already suggested evidence was emerging the New IRA was recruiting disaffected youth in poor areas.
The issue of the border is front and centre of much of the Brexit angst that is consuming British MPs. Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan – that was overwhelmingly rejected this month – allowed for the border to remain as it is by creating a new customs union the whole of the UK would belong to. But it also meant Northern Ireland would be subject to some parts of the single market which angered the DUP who don’t want the province treated any different from other parts of the UK.
There is hope the EU will soften its stance and allow for this arrangement to have an end date, which hopefully would encourage more MPs to support it. At present most don’t trust the UK would stay tied to the EU indefinitely with no way of breaking out of the customs union.
THIS WEEK – MORE VOTES, MORE UNCERTAINTY
The next key Brexit vote takes place tomorrow night (Wednesday morning Australian time).
Part of the so-called “meaningful vote” is MPs will be able to not only vote on a deal, but also on amendments that proposed an alternative.
Tuesday night is their chance.
So far there are almost 19 amendments planned, though some could be dropped and not all will be put to the vote – that will be up to the discretion of the Speaker, John Bercow, a controversial figure who has already angered the government benches by being prepared to throw out ancient parliamentary conventions.
Some of the amendments fall into this category, as they would hand parliament significant and unusual power of the executive, possibly leading to a constitutional crisis.
Of the amendments, the most significant are ones that intend to thwart a no-deal Brexit. One in the name of Labour frontbencher Yvette Cooper would enable parliament to direct Mrs May to seek a delay in Brexit if no deal was possible. Another amendment, this time non-binding on the government, would reject leaving the EU altogether without a deal.
MPs will also have the chance to have their say on indicative vote amendments – essentially a series of votes on different Brexit scenarios. The reasoning would be to test what level of support each would have in the House of Commons.
Finally, the last of the amendments concerns the Irish backstop. the two main ones, which have a chance of succeeding, call for the backstop to expire after 12 months or for it to be removed from the withdrawal agreement altogether.