A few days ago a policeman asked me to confirm my identity and said he'd like to speak to me. It turned out that he wanted to comment on a column I had written a few weeks earlier about Peter Robinson. What struck me more than his words was the fact that he was wearing a flak jacket and carrying the standard issue handgun although he worked for traffic branch.
In the last few weeks, the threat warnings to officers across the province have been raised. Anyone standing out in the street in uniform is at risk of being shot and we are back to the days of checking under cars. It has become fashionable to dismiss the dissident republican micro groups but a series of successful attacks would have the potential to put severe pressure on our fledgling political institutions.
The dissident splinter groups are currently deeply divided and vying with each other for a limited pool of members. That makes them easier to infiltrate and disrupt.
Yet however compromised and confused they may be, they have the initiative; as the mainstream IRA said after the Brighton bombing of 1984, "We only have to be lucky once. "
Senior police officers have advised government that if one or other of the rival republican armies does "get lucky" and succeeds in killing members of the security forces, it will swallow the others up and form a unified force which would be harder to deal with. A sustained campaign would be beyond its capabilities but sporadic lethal attacks might not.
The Real IRA said in an interview with the Sunday Tribune in February "With more attacks on the RUC/PSNI we believe we can reach the stage where British soldiers are brought back onto the streets to bolster the cops. This will shatter the facade that the British presence has gone and normality reigns. People will once again be made visibly aware that we remain occupied."
Bringing the British army onto the streets may sounds like a cock-eyed objective for republicans but with that end in mind the sight of traffic cops in flak jackets and armed checkpoints along some country roads may seem like a step along the way.
Last Monday evening near Omagh the dissidents showed their teeth when, for the first time in years, they successfully detonated an under car booby trap. The target was Ryan Crozier, 27, a Catholic who joined the PSNI three and a half years ago.
Crozier had been calling in to see a friend in Drumnaby Road near the village of Spamount, on his way to a night shift in Enniskillen PSNI station. The bomb didn't prove fatal because it apparently didn't contain high explosives and an adequate detonation device, but Crozier couldn't move because his legs were injured by shrapnel. He would most likely have burned to death if a member of the public had not pulled him clear of the wrecked vehicle moments before it burst into flames.
The fact that he was travelling between home in Omagh and work in Enniskillen, two towns whose names have become linked to republican bomb atrocities, struck many as chilling, but it also served to underline how much things have moved on.
The Enniskillen bombing was part of a campaign authorised by Martin McGuinness, who was at that time leader of the IRA's northern command. Even after Omagh, carried out by the breakaway Real IRA, McGuinness confined himself to calling for the campaign to end. He refused appeals from the relatives of the dead to call for information to be given to either the gardai of the RUC.
Last week it was different. McGuinness personally visited Crozier in Altnagelvin hospital to offer his support and sympathy to the injured officer.
His words of condemnation could not have been stronger as he appealed for anyone with information to assist the police.
"I want to encourage anyone with any knowledge whatsoever regarding the despicable attack on this policeman to contact the police immediately, to assist them fully in their enquiries, and I would also like to pay tribute to the courageous actions of a passerby whose quick thinking saved this policeman's life" McGuinness said.
Last week his words were just as strong as those used by constitutional politicians of all hues after IRA atrocities committed under his leadership during the Troubles. The condemnations from Ian Paisley and Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI Chief Constable, were no stronger than those issued by Martin McGuinness and Pat Doherty, the Sinn Féin MP for West Tyrone.
McGuinness was also unequivocal in his condemnation and appeals for information after attacks on two police officers last November. McGuinness is a man who has stated in a TV interview in the past that the penalty for republicans who passed on information to the police was death. As recently as his evidence to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal in November 2003, he stood by this statement and spoke of an "IRA Honour Code" which limited what he could say.
After the attack on Crozier his calls for information were followed by a high level of co-operation with the police who have arrested four people. McGuinness believes that the dissidents now regard him as a legitimate target.
The point is that he, and the rest of the Sinn Féin leadership, have now turned the corner and there is no point in the unionists describing Sinn Féin "as unreconstituted terrorists." Former terrorists they may be, but they have taken the constitutional path and successive Independent Monitoring Commission reports have concluded that there is no sign of them turning back. Ian Paisley himself has said as much in his repeated statements that there is no possibility of going back to the dark days of violence. Whatever about the past, the current policy divisions between the DUP and Sinn Féin are far deeper on the subject of education than on the subject of policing.
What excuse, then, is there for control over education to be exercised at Stormont by a Sinn Féin Minister while policing powers are still held at Westminster?
Under the St Andrews Agreement a target date of May was set for devolving policing and justice powers but it wasn't firmly agreed by the DUP who are now blocking the move. Historically, this seems to be an unusual sticking point for unionists. The last unionist cabinet in at Stormont dissolved itself in 1972 when Ted Heath took its policing powers away.
"It would leave the Government of Northern Ireland bereft of any real influence and authority by removing the most fundamental power of any Government" said Brian Faulkner, the Prime Minister, in his resignation speech. "I said clearly that we were not interested in maintaining a mere sham or a face-saving charade."
Under the old Stormont, the Minister for Home Affairs more or less ran the police, but that would not happen if powers were devolved now. The chief constable has considerable operational independence and is held to account by the Policing Board, on which Sinn Féin is represented, and the Policing Ombudsman, both of which are independent of Stormont.
Devolving powers would not change that. A policing minister would control the overall budget but could not intervene in the day to day running or recruitment of the service as frequently happened in the days of Faulkner and his predecessors.
The effect of devolution of policing and justice powers now would be less tangible but equally important. It would put the mark of local democracy on the criminal justice system. It would help marshal all the resources and solidarity of society against the lethal dregs of paramilitarism and the petty mafias which still operate in some areas.
Completing the process of devolution would set the mood music for more change. The sense of shared ownership and common cause created would take the initiative away from the dissidents and undermine any remaining appeal they have to young people.
The DUP are running out of reasons not to move, but they still have one big one. They want to see the dissolution of the IRA Army Council so that there can be no question of any future criminal or paramilitary activity being linked to Sinn Féin.
It is in the interests of both parties to get over these last remaining hurdles. Hopefully the summer recess, and a peaceful marching season, will give them the opportunity to get move forward.