The Observer leads today with one of the weirdest stories I ever read:
Irish terror groups target Conservative party conference in Birmingham
Irish republican dissident groups are targeting the Conservative party conference this autumn, raising fears of a repeat of the 1984 Brighton attack that nearly killed the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
This certainly sounds alarming, and one expects to learn the sources and details on which this startling conclusion is based. Was it a briefing by the Police Service of Northern Ireland? Or by the power-sharing government at Stormont? Or maybe one of the cross-border bodies? Did they found maps of the Birmingham venue? Caches of weapons and explosives? Fake hotel employee tags? Read on:
Sources in Northern Ireland said that the October conference in central Birmingham had emerged as the prize target on a hit list drawn up by resurgent republican paramilitaries. Patrick Mercer, ex-chairman of the Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, said former senior police and army intelligence officers had informed him that dissident splinter groups had discussed targeting David Cameron’s first conference as prime minister.
Let’s begin with the sources: An EX-chairman of a Commons subcommittee on counter terrorism who got his information by EX-police and army intelligence officers. In other words, a British Conservative politician, whose last connection to NI was in his opposition role as former shadow homeland security minister (2003-2007, sacked by David Cameron over perceived racist comments), was told by British officers no longer on active service they somehow infiltrated the sectarian, secretive, ultra-nationalist-Irish Continuity and/or Real IRA, and learned the plans for their terrorist magnum opus.
If this seems weak, let’s look again at the actual information these amazingly up-to-speed retirees have delivered the former opposition Tory:
“…dissident splinter groups had discussed targeting David Cameron’s first conference as prime minister.”
I’m sorry, but the most threatening image this conjures for me is a bunch of old Republican hands sitting in a pub, fantasising about what they could do if they had the infrastructure, training, arms, funds and support they had back in 1984. And then either sighing collectively or bursting out laughing.
More realistically, Mercer’s sources couldn’t come up with anything more material than the plausibility of the Conservative conference being a desirable target, so they just went with that.
At best, the news are that some old soldiers are keen to scare the new UK government away from the peace process, raising fears of a repeat of the 1980’s culture of deep suspicion and intransigence cultivated by then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The recent event this links is not the failed bombing in Lurgan (which the Observer rather clumsily puts near the larger, more complicated and successful Brighton bomb 26 years ago), but the emerging information on talks between the NI executive and the dissidents.
Luckily, the fact that no one in executive position in the UK or NI cared to comment directly on the alarmist piece appears to indicate the governments are not buying into the story. One can’t help but think the Observer’s regular Ireland reporter, Henry MacDonald (is he on holiday?) wouldn’t buy into it, either.