Can security forces in Northern Ireland contend with a reinvigorated dissident threat?

Shooting of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell is arguably the most significant dissident republican attack in Northern Ireland for many years

The shooting of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, one of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) top investigators, has sent shock waves through the organisation.

Based on the New IRA being the chief suspects, the shooting of DCI Caldwell is arguably the most significant dissident republican attack in Northern Ireland for many years.

There is a sense this was the attempted assassination of a major target – a “relentless investigator” in the words of former colleague Chris Noble, now the chief constable of Staffordshire Police.

Dozens of investigations brought the 48-year-old face-to-face in interrogation suites with suspected killers in both organised crime gangs and terrorist organisations.


But the belief at this stage is that it was the New IRA who wanted DCI Caldwell dead.

“Undoubtedly he was a bigger target because of who he was,” said someone who worked with him.

He lived under several threat warnings, one of which is being linked to his inquiries into the unsolved murder of Ronan Kerr in 2011.

Constable Kerr (25) died in a booby-trap car bomb in Omagh and on the 10th anniversary of his death it was DCI Caldwell who was the public face of a fresh appeal for information.

In the same Tyrone town last Wednesday, the detective came very close to becoming the first police officer murdered since Constable Kerr, as two gunmen fired bullets into his body at the end of a youth football training session. He remains in hospital.

The attack appeared to underscore the re-emergence on the New IRA after nearly four years of surface-level inactivity.

In 2019, the organisation shot dead the journalist Lyra McKee as she watched rioting unfold in Derry.

Within a year, the organisation’s suspected leadership was rounded-up by the PSNI thanks to a surveillance operation which used an alleged agent embedded by the British security service MI5.

Ten individuals are currently awaiting trial on almost 50 terrorism charges as a result of Operation Arbacia.

The New IRA was seen as being in complete disarray and the main narrative pushed in policing and security circles was that threat the group posed had been severally blunted.

As a result last year, for the first time in more than a decade, the British government announced the threat level in Northern Ireland was being lowered from severe to substantial.

It might not have sounded much – the risk of attack going down from highly likely to likely – but it was a hugely symbolic moment.

Attacks, or attempted attacks, dropped markedly: the years 2020-22 saw a near absence of activity.

But the New IRA was reorganising and in November last year it mounted a roadside bomb attack, using military grade explosives, on a police patrol car in Strabane, Co Tyrone.

The armour-plated vehicle did its job and the two officers inside escaped injury.

The attack has now, it appears, been followed-up with the attempted murder, less than 20 miles away, of DCI Caldwell.

So what can be drawn from these events?

Firstly, the New IRA had been disrupted but not crushed.

It does, however, remain a small organisation with insignificant support, all be it one which is once again demonstrating an intermittent ability to carry out acts of violence.

It has nothing remotely near the capacity of its predecessor, the Provisional IRA.

MI5 recordings from the Operation Arbacia case reveal the New IRA as having been desperate to acquire weaponry. Estimates of members have not been provided for years.

But the organisation does not seem to have drastically altered from what was briefed out in security circles at that point – that perhaps roughly up to 100 people prepared to directly engage in acts of terrorism.

The New IRA is scattered operationally around Strabane, Derry, Tyrone and west Belfast.

It is the biggest and most active of the dissident groups which exist as opponents to the Northern Ireland peace settlement.

The Continuity IRA has largely been quiet since the discovery of a bomb attached to a lorry trailer intended to cause a so-called “Brexit attack” on a cross-channel ferry, or at Belfast docks, in early 2020.

The other currently active organisation is Arm na Poblachta, which late last year forced a delivery driver at gunpoint to transport a small bomb to Waterside police station in Derry.

Is there any added significance to attack at this time?

There is some sense that dissident groups could be trying to gain a momentum with Stormont down and politics being portrayed in Northern Ireland as failing.

There is also the approaching 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement which dissidents see completely different from the majority on the island – as a capitulation by Sinn Féin and the republican “mainstream” to continued partition.

All this will be occupying the minds of the PSNI and MI5 – which assumed the lead role in intelligence gathering several years ago.

For PSNI officers, the shooting of one its most high-profile detectives will serve as a drastic wake-up call in terms of personal security.

The overwhelming majority of the organisation, some 6,700 officers, never served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) during the Troubles and are now being urged by the Police Federation to be more vigilant than at any point in the recent past.

The security developments arrive at a difficult time for the PSNI.

It lost 300 officers over the past 12 months due to budget problems and is looking at having to make further significant cutbacks in the years ahead.

Already at the lowest officer level since its formation two decades ago, it could shrink to 6,000 officers by 2025.

This will play out politically in the coming days and weeks, with the PSNI asking can it contend with a reinvigorated dissident threat with diminished resources?

Julian O’Neill is BBC NI home affairs correspondent