What Was the Message Behind the Real IRA Bomb?

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Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Forensic officers examine the damage caused by a car bomb that exploded outside the Ulster Bank in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on Oct. 5, 2010

Just three months ago, the people of Londonderry were celebrating jubilantly after their troubled city was selected as the inaugural U.K. City of Culture. Since then, however, Londonderry's new image as a forward-looking cultural powerhouse — in the words of the city's successful bid, a place of "hope, optimism, determination, enquiry, history and joy" — has been tainted by serious dissident republican violence. In August, a car containing 200 lb. (90 kg) of explosives blew up outside a police station, with no casualties. And on Monday night, Oct. 4, another car bomb exploded, near a branch of the Ulster Bank on Culmore Road, one of the city's main thoroughfares. It went off about an hour after a warning was given to police; nobody was hurt, but the blast was so strong that a police officer standing close to the cordoned-off area was knocked off his feet.

In one sense, the bomb — for which the dissident republican terrorist group the Real IRA has claimed responsibility — was not unexpected. Londonderry is known as a hotbed of republican terrorist activity. And this is not the first time the Ulster Bank has been targeted: last year, the Real IRA admitted to sending bullets to relatives of police officers working in the Culmore Road branch. In a September interview with the Guardian newspaper, a spokesman for the group said its attacks would involve military, political and economic targets, adding, "The role of bankers and the institutions they serve in financing Britain's colonial and capitalist system has not gone unnoticed." Over the past 18 months, the Real IRA and similar groups have meted out more than 20 so-called punishment shootings — which usually leave victims alive but severely injured — in some of the city's nationalist working-class areas. The dissidents are also prepared to use lethal force. In March 2009, the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the execution-style murder of two soldiers at a British army base in County Antrim, and last February, the group said it had killed Ciaran Doherty, a Derry man who claimed that the U.K. intelligence service MI5 tried to recruit him as an informer.

However, the motivation for Monday's bombing has left some analysts perplexed. There is "no obvious rationale" for it, says security and policing expert Chris Ryder. "There is a growing sense of anger and frustration in the city at what is seen as an entirely pointless attack which only affects ordinary people and does nothing to advance the prospect of a united Ireland." Despite the public's impatience with the rows, rivalry and wrangling that have characterized the power-sharing government between the Catholic-backed Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party — in particular, the deadlock, finally resolved earlier this year, over the devolution of policing and justice powers — there is broad support on both sides of the community for making the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly work.

Ryder says there could be several possible reasons for the timing of the latest bombing. Some observers think it was timed to precede Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness' address to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Tuesday. Others point to the date: the 42nd anniversary of the first civil rights march held in Londonderry, on Oct. 5, 1968. "It could even have been intended as a belated two fingers up to Bill Clinton," says Ryder. Clinton was in Derry on Sept. 29 to speak at the University of Ulster's Magee campus on how to build economic prosperity. "But essentially there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason to the attack."

But experts warn that just because the attack seems random, it's no less serious. The Real IRA insists that support for the group among young disaffected nationalists is growing — although there's debate over whether that claim is more propaganda than fact. "The threat assessment concerning dissident republicans has risen in recent times," says security writer Brian Rowan, noting that the terrorism-threat level in Northern Ireland is at "severe," while last month Britain's threat level from Irish-related terrorism was raised from "moderate" to "substantial." "MI5 says that they pose a real and rising security challenge. But what we are seeing is intermittent activity. They are not capable of a sustained campaign."

Rowan dismisses the speculation that the bomb was timed to coincide with McGuinness' speech to the Tory conference: "That would take far too much planning." Speaking from Birmingham, McGuinness — who last month launched a draft of a Regeneration Plan for Londonderry, designed to build a healthier economy — condemned the attack as "the futile activities of conflict junkies." "The objectives of these people are to destroy the peace process, to break the unity of the [Assembly], to turn back the clock on policing and to embarrass Sinn Fein," he said. "On all four counts, they have been failing miserably."

But as the dissident terrorists continue with their attacks, the real question is, What do they think they can achieve? "After all, the IRA was armed by Libya, and they still reached a stalemate," says Rowan. "The dissidents don't have the wherewithal the IRA had, in terms of expertise, arms, financial and community support. So if they have no answer to that crucial question — well, then they are just trying to kill for the sake of killing."