ALARMING new figures show that 14 per cent of nationalists sympathise with dissident republican terrorists.
The disturbing findings come amid fears of an escalation in dissident attacks following the overnight car bomb which wrecked buildings near the centre of Londonderry early yesterday.
According to research to be unveiled by Professor Jon Tonge of Liverpool University at a conference at Queen's University tomorrow, 14 per cent of those identifying as nationalists in a survey have "sympathy for the reasons why some republican groups (such as the Real and Continuity IRAs) continue to use violence".
The findings are clearly at odds with the views of Londonderry's police commander Stephen Martin who yesterday said the terrorists "had no support" or "legitimacy".
But writing in the News Letter, Mr Tonge said: "One of the mantras of the peace process is that 'dissident' republicans have no support ... Yet the assumption that dissidents have no support has been precisely that – an assumption, untroubled by actual evidence either way."
There was widespread denunciation of this latest bomb attack, which injured two police officers, and forced pensioners from their sheltered accommodation.
Even though police said nearly 60 people have already been charged this year for dissident activity, security chiefs are becoming increasingly concerned by the developing threat from hardliners trying to derail the peace process.
The Real IRA, which was responsible for the Omagh bombing in 1998 which killed 29 people, said they carried out the attack.
The Londonderry bomb – believed to have contained more than 200lb of explosives packed into a Vauxhall Corsa – exploded just after midnight, damaging a branch of the Ulster Bank and shops in front of Da Vinci's Hotel in Culmore Road.
Police believe the device may have been abandoned after the presence of officers in the area prevented the bombers reaching a different, unknown target.
The bank and several shops were damaged in the attack. The area had been cleared when the bomb exploded. However, one of the officers, who was standing close to the cordon, was blown off his feet by the blast, which sprayed masonry and glass across the Culmore Road.
It has emerged that three coded bomb warnings were given, one to a hospital and two to a hotel.
The blast comes at a time of rising optimism in Londonderry after it was named UK Capital of Culture for 2013.
But the negative impact of the blast saw Italian football officials request security information ahead of their Euro 2012 qualifier against Northern Ireland on Friday, though football authorities in Belfast said they expect the Italians to arrive in the city for the game as planned.
DUP East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said more has to be done to jail dissidents, while Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness expressed his disgust at the attack in his native city.
There had been a warning around an hour before the blast and several people, including hotel guests, residents in a nursing home and people living nearby, were evacuated.
It also emerged that staff at the Ulster Bank were threatened some time ago by the Real IRA.
Two months ago a 200lb car bomb exploded outside a police station half a mile away in Strand Road. Dissident republicans were also blamed for that explosion.
In February the Real IRA shot dead Kieran Doherty in Londonderry. He was stripped and bound and his body dumped on a road close to the Irish border. There was widespread condemnation after the group claimed the dead man was one of its members who was killed for involvement in drugs. Earlier Mr Doherty claimed to have been approached by MI5.
The PSNI last night released fresh figures on its efforts to combat dissident activity. It said there had been 37 dissident republican incidents so far this year, with 169 arrests and 59 people charged, compared with 17 people charged during all of 2009.