Police are thwarting up to four planned dissident republican attacks for every one the extremists manage to pull off, a senior police commander has warned.
The officer leading the fight against the violent renegades said a hard core of veteran terrorists are directing hundreds of active dissidents in their campaign of violence.
Will Kerr, assistant chief constable with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), said the dissidents’ widening attack capabilities, ranging from car bombs to rocket fired grenades, were “deeply concerning”.
But he stressed their activities also needed to be put in “perspective” and insisted there was no likelihood of a return to the widespread violence of the Troubles.
Mr Kerr, who emphasised the need for more community help in thwarting the dissident threat, also said there was no evidence that loyalist paramilitaries were planning to re-engage in conflict in response to recent dissident actions.
The overview from the head of the PSNI’s serious crime branch comes amid warnings from the police that dissidents are hell-bent on marking the forthcoming centenary of the Dublin Easter Rising against British rule by killing security force members in Northern Ireland.
Last week a 52-year-old prison officer required surgery after a dissident bomb detonated under the van he was driving in Belfast.
“We stop three or four attacks for every one that gets through,” said Mr Kerr.
“That is a broad comparator but it is a reasonably accurate one as well.
“We stop the vast majority of attacks. We are not in any way complacent about that and never will be complacent.”
The assistant chief constable added: “There are a few hundred active DRs (dissident republicans) who are involved in active dissident republican operations but there would be a much smaller number, most of whom would have very significant terrorist experience, who are involved in directing terrorism and the leadership of these groups as well.
“These DR groups are dangerous, but we need to keep a bit of perspective around them as well.
“They are not in the same scale in terms of numbers and capability as terrorist campaigns we have experienced in the past - it’s not the same pace of attacks, it’s not the same volume of attacks.
“It’s very unlikely and it won’t return to the scale and pace of attacks in the past.
“These groups have very limited community support and traction - it just isn’t there, despite their protestations and public statements that they do have support, they very clearly don’t - certainly not within republican communities.
“They have no strategy, no rationale, no objectives - it’s an entirely futile campaign where violence of itself seems to be an end of itself.”
He added: “It’s like playground bullies in a school where everyone else has moved on and you have these bullies looking round them who don’t quite understand what’s happened but whose only default mechanism is the use of violence, they know nothing else.”
Mr Kerr said the dissidents would use the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising as an “excuse” to commit violence.
He also moved to counter speculation that loyalist paramilitaries were planning a violent response to the dissident threat.
The officer nevertheless issued a blunt warning to any loyalists who might consider such a move.
“The response to DR activity, the only legitimate response is by the police service,” he said.
“We will not allow and will have no tolerance whatsoever for any misplaced retribution by any element of loyalism and we will stamp down on that very hard if that happens.”