The discovery of a major arms haul including landmines and an armour-piercing missile has been described as “very worrying” by an ex-police intelligence figure.
Norman Baxter said that the fact such weapons are still in the possession of paramilitary factions should be a cause for real concern, but that the age of the weapons will have a bearing on what it means for the Province’s security.
The discovery at Capanagh Forest, east Antrim, was branded “one of the most significant seizures of munitions” of recent years by police.
It was made on Saturday, then news began to emerge on Monday.
Police then issued details on Tuesday.
The PSNI found three barrels hidden in purpose-built holes in the woods.
This included two claymore mines, several pipe bombs, and ammunition and explosives.
Police would not reveal exactly how many bullets or how much explosive material was recovered, but said that other components present could have been used to build a “substantial number” of bombs.
Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes from Serious Crime Branch said: “A number of these devices were ready to be deployed. This seizure has undoubtedly saved lives.”
Also among the haul was an “explosively formed projectile” capable of piercing armour – leading police to believe that dissident republicans are likely to be behind it.
They drew parallels between this find and the one in Carnfunnock Country Park, several miles to the east of Capanagh, in March when police said “a member of the public reported a suspicious object” leading to the discovery of buried barrels full of munitions in the woodland.
This time, police said two members of the public “noticed suspicious objects and contacted police” during a walk in the area on Saturday.
Mr Baxter, a former operational intelligence advisor before his retirement in 2008, said: “In general terms, it’s a very worrying development that this capability still exists.
“Because it’s really a set back in terms of where we should be with these organisations. The issue is – is it old or new? That’s the question.
“If it’s new, it’s a very worrying development. If it’s old decayed stuff it’s not as worrying as if it’s been manufactured in the last recent period.”
When asked what age the weapons were, the PSNI indicated they were unwilling to provide more information.
Sammy Wilson, MP for East Antrim, said that despite the constituency being dominated by Protestant, unionist residents, there were still “strong republican pockets” in some of the villages around the Glens.
He said he had been aware that dissidents had made bids to recruit members in these areas and in Larne.
Mr Wilson, a former member of the Policing Board for six years, said he doubted that the find – coming after the Carnfunnock discovery – was a “coincidence”.
“Quite significant finds have been found. A lot of action has been prevented. Is this all down to luck?” he asked.
“These things aren’t usually down to luck at all, you know? They’re pretty often down to intelligence. Sometimes police will be happy to say ‘this a result of intelligence we received’. Other times, they prefer to keep people guessing.”
This could be because they want to protect a source, or because they want to create tension within paramilitary cells about who may be passing on information – something which would make them more reticent to act.
He noted that the terrorism threat level in the mainland UK from dissident republicans had been increased earlier this month to “substantial”.
He said: “It justifies the raising of the threat level – it shows that’s not without warrant, without foundation or reason.”