We've lost control of Ardoyne, IRA warns

Death threats are issued after dissidents dominate republican stronghold

The IRA has lost its grip on Ardoyne, the well-known republican stronghold in north Belfast, the Irish government has been warned.

During disturbances in Greater Belfast last Monday organised by republican dissidents, two leading figures in the Provisional IRA told Irish government representatives they could no longer control elements in Ardoyne opposed to the peace process.

And in a sign of growing confidence, one of the dissident terror groups issued a chilling expulsion order last night against four west Belfast men whom they said would be killed unless they left Northern Ireland this weekend.

Dissident groups such as the Continuity IRA and Real IRA have also been gaining ground in other republican redoubts in the city, including the New Lodge, Market and Lower Ormeau Road areas.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland revealed last week that the dissidents, working in unison for the first time in Greater Belfast, were responsible for 37 hijackings and bomb warnings that temporarily closed many arterial routes into the city. Security alerts continued yesterday, with army bomb disposal officers having to deal with a suspect device on the Andersonstown Road in west Belfast.

The British government was briefed on the warning about the dissidents' growth in north Belfast last week. British sources told the Observer that the loss of control in areas such as Ardoyne was a worrying development, particularly with the Ulster loyalist marching season looming.

The shops at Ardoyne are a major flashpoint between nationalist protesters and Orangemen and their supporters at two major parades in the city in June and July.

"The Irish were told that they [ex-IRA members and Sinn Féin activists] would be unable to police their side of the line in Ardoyne this year. In previous years mainstream republicans helped keep the peace in places like Ardoyne. It's worrying if they have lost control because the dissidents will seek to exploit the marching season," the British source said.

The Observer has also learnt from the same source that the dissidents tried to set a trap for the PSNI in Ardoyne during last Monday's disruptions.

"After they burned a vehicle in the area, the fire service asked for police back-up to put out the fire. The PSNI received intelligence that a large cache of petrol bombs had been prepared in Ardoyne to attack police if they moved into the area. To avoid a riot, or something even more sinister, the PSNI took the decision not to go in," the British source said.

The caution was based on avoiding a repetition of what happened on 9 March when the Continuity IRA lured police officers into a private housing development in Craigavon, Co Armagh. The CIRA, using local youths from a nearby estate, first attacked a family home in the area. The family called the police for help. When a patrol arrived, a CIRA sniper shot and killed Constable Stephen Carroll, the first PSNI officer to die at the hands of terrorists.

The organisation that has issued the expulsion order is Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH), one of the three main dissident organisations, which made a statement using a recognised code word warning four named men to leave the country during the next 72 hours or be shot. The group accused the four men - from the Falls Road area - of drug dealing and being police informers.

"All the people listed are under immediate death threat," it stated. "This action will be taken as a result of an investigation by Óglaigh na hÉireann intelligence units over a period of three months. "These people have 72 hours to leave the country or they will face execution. This is not an idle threat."

ONH is a breakaway faction from the Real IRA that disagreed with the RIRA's attempt to call a cease-fire following the Omagh bombing. The group is led in Belfast by a former IRA prisoner and its main base is in East Tyrone.

The ongoing pressures on the security forces have prompted the government to try to postpone Sir Hugh Orde's expected departure from Northern Ireland. The PSNI chief constable is a leading candidate to win the presidency of the Association of Chief Police Officers in an election on 15 April. However, government sources said this weekend that if Orde won the post they would try to persuade him to remain at the PSNI until September, guiding the police through the 2009 summer marching season.


Henry McDonald, Ireland editor

The GuardianTramp

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