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The Police Service of Northern Ireland has said that it is investigating reports that social networking sites are being used to recruit children - some as young as 13 - into dissident Republican groups.

The news comes as Northern Ireland faces an upsurge in activity by dissident Republicans. Last month, for the first time in over a decade, a British soldier was killed in Northern Ireland.

Now, it appears that splinter groups like the so-called Real IRA are trying to recruit children into their campaign of terror.

In fact, they may already have succeded: a 17-year-old boy was arrested, in connection with the murder of a police officer - himself a Catholic - in March.

A number of different websites, which say that they are linked to the dissident Republicans and which have hundreds of members, tell their audience to “join the struggle.”

In Ireland, one of the most popular social networking sites, especially among younger teenagers, is Bebo.

One Bebo group, called “Support the Dissidents”, had 117 members as of Thursday, an IrishCentral search found. The group's page shows a picture of men in paramilitary outfits, with “Remember the price that has been paid, do not allow it be for nothing,” written below. 

One of its members is only 16: a boy called Fintan McPhilomey, from Country Fermanagh, whose Bebo name is “Dude” and whose profile picture shows him posing with a trophy wearing sports gear.

Another Bebo group called  "Join the ERPS” has 50 members, some of whom are posing with guns or various other paramilitary garb, in their profile pictures. The group’s picture show masked men brandishing guns, with the sinister tagline, “We haven’t gone away, you know.”

On the group’s wall, a member called Liam Graham has written: “The Republican cause has been betrayed by traitors such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness. [They] are enemies of Irish republicanism. Traitors, and sell outs.

"These men represent a British party. The Provisional IRA has disgraced themselves on a national and local level. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement is surrender to the British forces and a surrender of the beliefs the men of 1916 died for. Is this what our martyrs fought for?”

And a Bebo site of a youth movement called Na Fianna Eireann, who apparently are linked to the Continuity IRA, say that their goal is to provide “education of young boys and girls to assist all branches of the republican movement”.

This worrying online development was raised by John Whittingdale, a Conservative Member of Parliament, who asked Shaun Woodward , the British Secretary of State, if he was aware “of reports that dissident groups are using social networking sites, websites and blogs to recruit young people, some of whom may be as young as 13?”

Woodward replied: “I have been made aware of this, and the police are indeed investigating it.

“The site itself has vowed to |remove materials that it considers illegal, defamatory or fraudulent or that infringe or violate any |individual’s rights.

“There are clearly some legitimate concerns, and obviously the police will act if there is any evidence of activity of a criminal |nature going on.”