‘Desperate dissidents seeking link to events of last century’

The burned-out remains of a vehicle blown up in a dissident attack on Londonderry courthouse
The burned-out remains of a vehicle blown up in a dissident attack on Londonderry courthouse

The former second-in-command of the PSNI has warned dissident republicans may try to “mount a resurgence” because they are “desperate” to connect their violence to major historic anniversaries.

Alan McQuillan was speaking on yesterday’s anniversary of the start of the Irish War of Independence and first Dail, which saw further security alerts and hijacking incidents take place in Londonderry in the wake of Saturday’s car bombing in the city.

Saturday’s attack showed “much greater technical and logistic effort” than other recent ones, he said, adding that the coming years will see a string of major centenary milestones, and the police must be adequately resourced to counter the dissident threat.

At time of writing last night, five men (aged 50, 42, 32, 21 and 21) were in custody in relation to Saturday’s car bombing outside the Bishop Street courthouse, which saw a hijacked vehicle blown up.

In addition to that, yesterday saw security alerts in the west of the city at 11.30am and 1.45pm, both involving van hijackings.

Then late last night, soon after Mr McQuillan spoke to the News Letter, news emerged of more trouble.

The PSNI said just before 9pm they were “responding to a report of an abandoned vehicle on the Northland Road” in the centre-west of Londonderry – though there were no further details.

Then soon after they said “there has been an attempted hijacking of a local bus service in the area of Moss Road” in the north-west of the city.

Mr McQuillan began his career in uniform in Co Londonderry, and estimates he spent 80% of his career in public order/anti-terror operations before retiring as acting deputy chief constable in 2003.

When it comes to yesterday’s independence war centenary, he said: “They always use reference points like that in an attempt to try and wind things up, because they’re desperate to try and find any sort of reference from the past.”

He estimated about 50% of dissidents are ex-PIRA and the others are “new skin”; in Londonderry, the disorder of the past year showed “quite clearly people trying to recruit and blood young people to get them involved again to try and bring on a new generation – I think it’s all part of that as well”.

Whilst dissident activity in the last 12 months has been “extremely low” thanks to security service work, “it was obvious at some point they would try to break out again”.

He went on to say: “I think they’ll actively try to mount a resurgence and I think the police and security services will get control of it.

“But there’s two issues in that: it’ll take time, and secondly we need to realise how far PSNI has been allowed to decline in terms of numbers.”

He added: “You’ve the centenary of the War of Independence. You’ve the centenary of the treaty. You’ve the centenary of the founding of the Irish state. All of those anniversaries are stacked up in the next three years... They’ll use of that. They’ll use any ruse possible to try and protect their own position and take it forward, and the police really need to be on top of it.”

He noted that police numbers are far below those recommended in the 1999 Patten report.