Northern Ireland Related Terrorism (NIRT) is a shadow of its former self, despite never really having gone away entirely. Only a handful of people have been killed each year by armed groups since the turn of the century, compared with nearly five hundred at its peak in 1972. Critically, however, this comparative peace has been hard-won not through military campaigns or targeted killings ordered from Whitehall, but through decades of inch-by-inch trust-building, political compromise and gradual changes in social attitudes. Nevertheless, recent incidents have drawn attention to the continued existence of dissident republican groups who reject the Good Friday Agreement and revel in the paralysing chaos surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union. British and Irish security forces have long warned against complacency, and the critical role former paramilitaries now play in averting continued escalation is under unprecedented strain.
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On the 6th March 2019, three small explosive devices were found at London City airport, Heathrow airport, and Waterloo train station; all major travel hubs of the British capital that together process over 600,000 passengers every day. In Glasgow too, a similar package was found at the city’s main university the same day. Thankfully, no successful attack materialised despite the apparent viability of the devices, and travel disruption proved minimal. Despite this, the discoveries provided ample opportunity for speculation in the press, which was made all the more curious by the Dublin city postage stamps stuck to each of the parcels. Naturally, this led to immediate speculation over the involvement of the ‘New IRA’ – the self-proclaimed successor organisation to the Provisional IRA that dominated resistance against British rule in Northern Ireland throughout the twentieth century.
The assertion is undeniably credible, and indeed MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), who together run the UK’s counter-terrorism command in the region, described the link as ‘possible’. Days after the incident, in fact, a group claiming to be the New IRA stated that they were responsible, reportedly using a code word known to the security services in order to verify themselves. Of course, neither MI5 nor the PSNI have released details of their investigations and the story has, in the press at least, gone silent.
Whether or not the packages constituted an actual bombing attempt or a non-lethal warning of capability is rather beside the point. While the incident ended without injury, the subsequent claim by the New IRA could actually prove more strategically important for London, Dublin and Belfast. It signifies one of two possibilities concerning the future of Northern Ireland Related Terrorism (NIRT), either of which could mean a sea-change in the nature of the UK’s longest-enduring national security threat.
The New IRA were, in fact, not directly involved at all. Until the coded claim was made, this may have seemed the most probable answer among investigators, and it remains possible that the code word was stolen, improperly used, or falsely reported. Moreover, the London packages were unsophisticated, whereas previous ‘official’ attacks have employed car-bombs, pipe-bombs, grenades or small arms. Organised dissident republican groups have traditionally almost invariably attacked arms of the state, namely police officers, prison staff, soldiers, or indeed courthouses (as seen in the bombing in Derry/Londonderry in January). In fact, the focus on armed forces was specified by the New IRA’s public statement of intent in 2012. These particular packages, however, were sent mainly to civilian targets which haven’t been attacked by Irish militants since the turn of the century. The one package that did target an arm of the British state (an army recruitment centre at Glasgow University) appeared in the Scottish city where many dissident Irish republicans have held a do-not-operate policy since the 1970s. These factors point to the work of a splinter-group, or of an isolated individual unconstrained by the operating procedures of more mainstream dissidents. Either way, they indicate an operating environment that may have begun emboldening lesser known actors to carry out operations entirely independent of recognised leadership.
The Real IRA were indeed responsible for the packages, and have begun implementing a shift in strategy. Specifically, this likely involves a renewed intention to strike targets on the British mainland, and shows the effective coalescence of multiple dissident groups over the last decade.
Either way, the packages drew attention to the persistent security threat of armed groups in Northern Ireland that younger generations of mainland civilians have, thankfully, had little memory of or reason to acknowledge. MI5, the PSNI, and the Irish Garda, on the other hand, are well aware of the ongoing violence and the persistent threat posed by a recommencement of open hostilities. In 2017, there were 120 arrests in Northern Ireland under the Terrorism Act. In 2018, there were 176. There have been dozens of assaults and shootings, and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of firearms and ammunition seized. A full 22% of MI5 resources still go towards monitoring NIRT; and the PSNI – the only routinely armed police force in the British Isles – have requested still more funding to do the same this year. The terror threat level for Northern Ireland is still ‘Severe’, and authorities have foiled at least nine attacks in the last two years alone, according to public records.
Indeed, many of the same players still exist on both sides of the old divide. The Ulster Volunteer Force and its Red Hand Commando (which were responsible for 544 murders during the Troubles), the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Freedom Fighters (responsible for 408 murders) and the Irish National Liberation Army (126 murders) all still maintain criminal networks to varying degrees.
That said, their postures have for the most part changed dramatically, and only the INLA is known to engage regularly with dissident groups (those that reject disarmament). In fact, not only have many former paramilitaries foregone their ideological pursuits for more financially-driven organised crime, but many of them have become indispensable voices for calm and de-escalation among younger republicans in Northern Ireland. One public MI5 report states, “It is out firm assessment that, to different degrees, the leaderships of the main paramilitary groups are committed to peaceful means to achieve their political objectives… The existence and cohesion of these paramilitary groups since their ceasefires has played an important role in enabling the transition from extreme violence to political progress”. Firm hierarchies persist in these communities, and the voices of former militant leaders carry great weight. And so, during times of comparative peace, their discouragement of violent sectarianism has become a major relief for the security forces.
In this context, therefore, the two possibilities outlined above are both unsettling. Even despite the work of rehabilitated former paramilitaries, something has triggered a renewed threat. That something – all credible monitors agree – is Brexit.
The majority of Northern Ireland residents voted to remain in the EU in 2017, but the Brexit process still led to the collapse of power-sharing in Stormont (Northern Irish Parliament), which is yet to be resolved. Since then, tension has risen dramatically over the issue of the Irish backstop, and security officials have been very clear in their misgivings about the potential outcomes. Much of the intelligence sharing between the PSNI and the Irish Garda is done through Europol, and reactive security infrastructure through the European Arrest Warrant. The Chief Constable of the PSNI described the latter as ‘critical’ in suppressing NIRT, and expressed concern that it holds no provision for third-party membership.
Dissident republican groups, on the other hand, have reveled in the Brexit chaos, not only because it threatens to debilitate joint UK-Irish counter-terrorism capabilities, but because it has actually resurrected the issue of Irish reunification in Dublin’s legislative agenda. The political quagmire was described by one dissident leader as “manna from heaven“, and Peig King, the patron of Republican Sinn Féin (the political wing of the Continuity IRA), said “this is the biggest opportunity that we’ve had since 1916”. It is, in the words of a third dissident speaker, “the embodiment of Britain’s colonial mind-set towards Ireland, ignoring what the Irish people want, or what is in the interests of the Irish people and simply pursuing their own selfish and strategic interest which is based on narrow British jingoism.” Similarly, Brexit Law NI (a joint venture between legal teams at Queens University, Ulster University, and a major Irish human rights organisation called Committee on the Administration of Justice) reported that “Brexit is broadly viewed by dissidents as ideological confirmation of Britain’s imperialist attitude and a classic example of the usurpation of Ireland’s right to sovereignty”. In other words, it may be a party-political nuisance for many in England, Scotland and Wales, but for citizens who were terrorised during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and now face a rise in dissident activity, the trajectory is potentially physically threatening.
The assessments of the UK security and intelligence communities have been near-unanimous. For the last twenty years, former paramilitary leaders who wreaked havoc during the Troubles have been instrumental in the diversion of the young and disillusioned of Northern Ireland away from ‘radicalisation’. Their presence within shaken communities whose socio-economic grievances are often compounded by decades of sectarianism has been fundamental to the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy.
Now, however, their influence is evidently dwindling. Inspired by an immobile British legislature and the potential reappearance of – to their eyes – foreign troops on their soil, the New IRA have stirred. While the events of recent months are no indication of a sudden outbreak of insurgency, it is paramount to remember that the Troubles themselves were no series of pin-pointable violent incidents. There is a glaring precedent for British complacency contributing to a rise in violence in Northern Ireland, and inter-communal trust is not something to be taken for granted.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal and the Search for Peace (Tim Pat Coogan)
- Making Peace (George Mitchell)
- The Northern Ireland Troubles: Operation Banner 1969–2007 (Aaron P. Edwards)
- A Farewell to Arms?: Beyond the Good Friday agreement (Michael Cox, Adrian Guelke & Fiona Stephen)
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Christopher McNulty is the pen name of a British security analyst focusing on modern insurgency issues. Christopher holds degrees in Political Science related fields from a selection of UK universities, and works closely with various private-sector Intelligence Organisations.
Photo credit: Payton Walton