Will Northern Ireland dissidents be able to exploit Brexit chaos?
Eamon Melaugh was at home when the bomb exploded. “I’ve heard many bombs over the years,” says the 85-year-old, sitting at a desk in the charity bookshop he runs in Londonderry. From the shop window you can still see the courthouse and the burnt, blackened patches of Bishop Street where the car bomb detonated.
“Out of the window I saw a car engulfed in flames,” says the civil rights campaigner, “I really panicked. My son left me three minutes before. It was 40 minutes before I knew he was OK.”
Attacks like the January car bombing in Londonderry, claimed by the dissident Irish republican group the New IRA, were once commonplace in a city scarred by three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. But since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 such attacks in the region have been reduced from hundreds a year to single figures.
Yet the UK’s domestic security service MI5 still allocates 22 per cent of its resources — a figure that could run to more than £100m — to fighting Northern Ireland-related terrorism, according to the most recent figures for 2016-17 published in November by the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.
With MI5 stretched to its limits by the threat from Islamist-inspired extremists and the challenge of dealing with hostile state activity in the UK — starkly highlighted by the 2018 nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury that was blamed on Russia — the question the intelligence agency faces is whether it should start scaling back its presence in Northern Ireland just as Brexit raises concerns over long-term security in the region.
The seemingly endless wrangling over the Irish backstop — the contentious part of the UK government’s EU withdrawal agreement, which seeks to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland — has placed security and the fragility of the peace process in Northern Ireland firmly back in the spotlight.
The UK mainland was reminded this week of the threat posed when the New IRA claimed responsibility for four parcel bombs sent to three London transport hubs and Glasgow university. Counter-terrorist police say the devices were not intended to kill. But they did provide a warning of what is at stake.
“This might be a quiet period when you look at the history of violence and terrorist activity in Northern Ireland,” says a senior UK security official. “But history also shows [that] there are ups and downs. And even allowing for the quiet period there are still a lot of attacks and activity compared to similar parts of Great Britain.”
MI5 only assumed the lead role for intelligence gathering and national security in Northern Ireland in 2007, as part of the agreement that paved the way for the return of devolved government to the region. For three decades before that year, the security service’s role was to provide intelligence to the UK government on paramilitary groups. At that time it had fewer than 50 people in Northern Ireland: now its staffing runs into the hundreds.
But its more central role has added to long-held suspicions within nationalist communities about the part played by the security services in some of the darker episodes in the history of the Troubles.
Today, MI5 measures the level of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland by monitoring the number of “successful” attacks, adding in those that are prevented by the police and security services, and those that fail or are aborted.
The attempted shooting of a police officer in Londonderry in July was the only “national security” attack last year, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This compared with five in 2017, four in 2016 and a total of 16 attacks in 2015. In 2010, there were 40 successful attacks.
These numbers suggest Northern Ireland’s republican and loyalist paramilitary groups are largely at peace, but a deeper look at the statistics portrays a slightly different story. Between February 2018 and the end of January 2019 there were three security-related deaths — those that can be attributed to terrorism or security force activity — in Northern Ireland and 13 casualties of paramilitary style shootings, a decline from 28 in the previous 12 months.
The number of active subjects of interest being tracked by MI5 in Northern Ireland is a fraction of the 3,000 Islamist terror suspects the security service monitors. However, security officials say it is a significant number (the information is not made public for national security reasons), requiring round-the-clock human and electronic surveillance in some cases.
“If you look at police figures it shows sustained but low level activity,” says Marisa McGlinchey, author of Unfinished business, a book on dissident republicans. Although several of these groups have largely decided not to pursue violent attacks against the British state, she says, the regular seizure of weapons by the police — on both sides of the Irish border — shows that some armed groups remain capable of launching them.
In 2018, police seized 45 firearms, 0.74kg of explosives and 3,157 rounds of ammunition. Meanwhile, a bomb disposal unit was called out to deal with a suspicious device four times a week on average last year, a high number compared with other regions of the UK.
“Anywhere else [these bomb threats] would be a story,” the UK security official adds. “This is not normal.”
Since the provisional IRA was formed in 1969, republican paramilitaries have splintered into multiple groups including the Continuity IRA in the 1980s and then, the Real IRA, which disbanded in 1998 following the outrage over the Omagh bombing that killed 29 people.
After the Good Friday Agreement, dissident republican groups have fractured into ever smaller organisations with the emergence of groups like the Mainstream IRA, Arm na Poblachta and Óglaigh na hÉireann, which called a ceasefire last year.
The UK government says many of these groups are more focused on organised crime and maintaining control of their local communities through intimidation and paramilitary style shootings.
Although MI5 and the police have got better at disrupting plots and infiltrating groups, disorganisation and a lack of resources have also played a part in the recent decline in attacks. “They [the republican groups] share a vision but they are tactically divided,” says Ms McGlinchey.
However, the emergence of the New IRA, formed in 2012, has become the focus for MI5 as it considers longer term security in Northern Ireland.
The 2016 launch of Saoradh, a republican political protest party, thought to be closely linked to the New IRA, has led some analysts to draw comparisons with the partnership between the Provisional IRA and its then political wing Sinn Féin in the 1970s.
George Hamilton, the outgoing chief constable of the PSNI, recently told the BBC: “Saoradh is the political voice of the New IRA. I think there is significant overlap between the leadership of both [groups].”
Saoradh says it is an independent organisation with no ties to any other groups. It vehemently rejects the Good Friday Agreement and calls for an end to British rule in Northern Ireland.
Its headquarters in the Bogside area of Londonderry, a short walk from where 14 people were shot and killed by British army paratroopers during Bloody Sunday in 1972, are adorned with colourful murals and pictures glorifying paramilitary activity. On Thursday Northern Ireland’s public prosecution service said it would charge one former member of the British army’s parachute regiment over the alleged murder of two civilians on Bloody Sunday nearly 50 years ago.
Saoradh accuses mainstream republican parties like Sinn Féin — the largest nationalist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly whose leaders were involved in the Good Friday deal — of exacerbating deprivation and social welfare issues by working with the British government on what it says are damaging cuts to public services.
“Sinn Féin have left our communities,” says Paddy Gallagher, national public relations officer for Saoradh. “These [communities] are in the grip of a suicide epidemic, they are in the grip of a drugs epidemic and they have massive homelessness and widescale cuts due to welfare reform. Our communities and our cities are going nowhere.”
It is this deprivation and sense of social inequality that Mr Gallagher says makes Londonderry a “powder keg”, although mainstream politicians insist the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland remain committed to the peace process.
“Dissident groups poll between 0.5-1 per cent in Northern Ireland, compared to 30 per cent for Sinn Féin at the height of the Troubles,” says Thomas Leahy, a lecturer in Irish history at Cardiff University.
Mr Gallagher claims his members are routinely harassed by MI5 and the police. But commenting on the Londonderry bombing and subsequent arrests, Barbara Gray, assistant chief constable of the PSNI, says: “We make no apology for pursuing those involved in these reckless attacks. Indeed in the last two years nine terrorist attacks have been frustrated by the PSNI and MI5 working together.”
John Boyle, mayor of Derry City and Strabane and a member of the Social Democratic and Labour party once led by Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume — a key architect of the Good Friday Agreement, argues that the power of new dissident groups and their political backers should not be overplayed.
“Those whose republican philosophy may run counter to that of Sinn Féin, are in the minority in this city,” he says. “We shouldn’t overestimate their strength.”
Brexit is viewed by republican dissidents as an “opportunity” rather than a political end in itself, say politicians and security officials. Yet it would be wrong, says one UK security expert, to expect a sudden upsurge in violence after the UK leaves the EU.
But, he adds, the security situation will become harder to manage after Brexit, with even the slightest hardening of the border likely to provide a tempting target for extremists. The idea of border checkpoints enforced by police or immigration officers remain unlikely but even softer options, such as the addition of automated cameras to check the movement of goods as they cross the border, could be magnets for dissidents looking to send a message.
The PSNI says an additional £16.5m in funding has been made available to recruit 308 additional police officers to a force that already numbers 6,667 to assist in meeting any potential demands around Britain’s exit from the EU.
For security officials the greatest concern is that Brexit triggers a change in the intelligence sharing relationship between the UK and Irish governments — widely seen as one of the key factors behind the success of the peace process. “Intelligence sharing will continue with the Irish Garda after Brexit,” says the security expert. “They [the Irish government] have given us assurances and they don’t want to lose that relationship.”
The reality is that Brexit is likely to make those relationships more strained. In particular, interruptions to the automatic extradition process that exists as part of the EU-wide European Arrest Warrant system, could undermine efforts to prosecute alleged terrorists.
Mr Leahy sees other problems in failing to secure continuity with the EU on security arrangements. He says it could be difficult “if the UK is not in Europol, even on things like interrogating suspects. How long do you detain them? If there’s a big divergence with the EU then that could lead to problems.”
The UK government insists there will be no return to a hard border, which has been essential to the peace process.
But the timing of the parcel bomb attack last week — the packages were all sent from Dublin with Irish postage stamps — indicates that there remains a real and genuine threat from dissident republicans.
Against this backdrop, MI5’s significant presence is unlikely to be wound down any time soon. “When MI5 took over in 2007, people said it was all over,” says the UK security official. “If people say the same thing now then we could fall into the same trap.”
Troubled history MI5 in Northern Ireland
During the Troubles, MI5’s staff in Northern Ireland never exceeded more than 50. Yet since 2007, when it took over the lead for national security from the now disbanded Royal Ulster Constabulary — which had been accused of bias by nationalist communities — its operation has grown significantly with hundreds of staff working from its modern headquarters deep inside Palace Barracks, a UK military base just outside Belfast.
The move to place the security service in charge of intelligence gathering was a key component of the St Andrews agreement in 2006, which led to the creation of the RUC’s successor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
“It was a significant change,” says Thomas Leahy from Cardiff University. “It was a way of protecting the PSNI, so there were fewer collusion allegations and so both Protestant and Catholic communities could put their trust in them.”
But while academics, such as Mr Leahy, argue that MI5’s role has been largely accepted by both sides, opposition remains. Plastered on walls in some nationalist areas of Londonderry, posters warn people not to collaborate with the PSNI and the security services.
Investigations into previous paramilitary activity may also shine a light on MI5’s role in some of the UK security forces’ darker episodes.
In one case Jon Boutcher, chief constable of Bedfordshire, is looking into allegations of murder and torture by the alleged double agent Freddie Scappaticci, who is said to have acted as a British army intelligence agent codenamed Stakeknife while a senior member of the IRA.
Part of the inquiry’s role is to examine what UK intelligence officers, including MI5, knew about the activities of Mr Scappaticci, who has always denied the allegations