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Impact of New Terrorist Threat Levels for the Irish Dissidents

Commentary, 29 September 2010
UK Intelligence Officers have for the first time published threat levels for Irish related terrorism, using the same system as for International Terrorism. But what is the likely impact of the move?

UK Intelligence Officers have for the first time published threat levels for Irish related terrorism, using the same system as for International Terrorism. Senior Research Fellow Margaret Gilmore analyses the reasons behind the move and the likely impact.  Army in Northern Ireland

By Margaret Gilmore for

On 16 September the Director General of the Security Service (MI5) Jonathan Evans gave a rare public speech. He chose the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals as a platform from which to give his assessment of the current terrorist threat to the UK. A large part of his speech was spent describing the dangers of international terrorism and the difficulties of analysing and prioritising the huge amount of intelligence information which MI5 receives - an issue he knows will be a strong focus when the inquests into the fifty two commuters killed in the July 5 2005 London bombs attacks open, in October 2010.

But there was another important message in his speech - a frank assessment of the latest threat from Irish dissident groups. It seems he was paving the way for the publication a week later, of new threat levels specifically relating to the increasing Irish threat.

'Insufficient Weight to the Pattern of History'

It is only three years since MI5 took on responsibility for national security intelligence work in Northern Ireland, bringing the arrangements there in line with the rest of the UK. Back in 2007 their assumption was that the threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland was low and likely to decline further. In fact the opposite has happened - there has been a persistent rise in terrorist activity and ambition over the last three years. In his speech Jonathan Evans explained why he thought the original assessment from MI5 was, with hindsight, flawed:

'Perhaps we were giving insufficient weight to the pattern of history over the last hundred years which shows that whenever the main body of Irish republicanism has reached a political accommodation and rejoined constitutional politics, a hardliner rejectionist group would fragment off and continue with the so called 'armed struggle.'     

This public admission that things are getting worse not better in Northern Ireland has led critics of MI5, among both republicans and unionists, to reiterate concerns that local police who know their own communities would do a better job at intelligence gathering than an organisation that has its headquarters in London. Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist First Minister of Northern Ireland says what is really needed is more resources for the police.

There is little doubt a huge number of extra resources for the police - or indeed MI5 - could make a difference. They have a good idea who many of the dissidents (numbering a few hundred) are. However, implementing round the clock surveillance would require hundreds more covert officers and be prohibitively expensive. There would be republican protests if communities felt they were returning to the days of intense covert surveillance.

In a compromise, solution police intelligence officers work alongside MI5 officers in the specially built MI5 office outside Belfast - and although MI5 will take time to bed in - as time passes they are employing more people locally. 

What Threat Levels Mean

Assessments of the level and nature of the threat from international terrorism are made by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), which is made up of representatives from sixteen government departments and agencies and answers to the head of MI5. But MI5 alone is responsible for setting the threat levels from Irish terrorism.

In deciding to publish the level for the first time they also decided to scale it according to the five point scale the JTAC uses for the international threat: 

  • Low - means an attack is unlikely
  • Moderate - an attack is possible, but not likely
  • Substantial - an attack is a strong possibility
  • Severe - an attack is highly likely
  • Critical - an attack is expected imminently

The only difference is that the UK has one threat level for International terrorism (currently Severe), while they have set two separate levels for Northern Ireland and Great Britain, putting Northern Ireland at Severe and Great Britain at Substantial. Jonathan Evans outlined the reasons for giving a lower threat level for the rest of the UK:   

'Whilst at present the dissidents' campaign is focused in Northern Ireland' he said, 'we cannot exclude the possibility that they might seek to extend their attack to Great Britain as violent Republican groups have traditionally done .'

It is apparent that dissident groups want to launch attacks in London and know this would bring publicity which in turn could bring more support from disaffected young men in the poorer areas of Northern Ireland. On September 14 2010 one of those groups, the Real IRA (RIRA), gave an interview to the Guardian Newspaper in which it claimed it regarded City of London financial institutions as potential targets. But they have yet to carry out a large bomb attack in Northern Ireland - let alone London - and at present pose a lesser threat to the UK than international terrorist groups affiliated to Al-Qa'ida.  

The Dissident Groups

An Independent Monitoring Commission regularly assesses the security situation in Northern Ireland. It's most recent report in May 2010 concluded that dissident republicans are highly active and dangerous. It is also indisputable that dissident activity is increasing. There have already been more than thirty attempts or actual attacks so far this year in Northern Ireland - compared with twenty for the whole of last year. The terrorists are using an increasing number of different techniques - ranging from shootings and undercar devices to large vehicle bombs. They have access to a variety of weapons and explosives including Semtex. Most of their attacks target the security forces, mainly the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but they are also involved in criminal activity and punishment beatings and shootings within their own communities.

The dissidents are largely republican groups which split from the Provision IRA in protest at the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. The two main groups are Continuity IRA (CIRA) and the Real IRA (RIRA) which was responsible for the last terrorist campaign in Great Britain in 2000-01 including attacks on MI6 and the BBC.

Both groups and some unaligned individuals also sometimes call themselves Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH - 'soldiers of Ireland').

Nevertheless the combined threat from these groups has not escalated to the levels of violence from the Provisional IRA at the height of the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s. Nor, according to the Director General of MI5, Jonathan Evans, have they won much popular support or shown signs of wanting to engage in the political process:

'There is a crucial difference in my view from the position fifteen years ago. The Provisionals, at their height could claim political support of a significant body of opinion in Northern Ireland and did develop a credible political strategy to operate alongside their terrorist campaign, but we see little evidence of a viable political programme on the part of dissident republican splinter groups.'  

In truth the dissidents are regarded as dangerous criminals rather than freedom fighters with an intellectual element to their cause. They have not called for political engagement - or made any substantial political demands. They do not have the strict hierarchy or the organisational skills of the Provisional IRA, they do not win hearts and minds by working to improve the social conditions of their communities and they do not have the huge armouries of weapons that PIRA had. This does not rule out the possibility that one bomb will get through and to devastating effect in the future. But they are unable to carry out the often daily, fatal attacks that PIRA carried out twenty and thirty years ago in Northern Ireland, and it makes them less capable than PIRA used to be, of attacking targets elsewhere in the UK.

Affect on the Peace Process

That at least is good news. It means the will of the majority is for peace and the peace process will continue. Some of the men of violence of the past are now running the Northern Ireland's governing Assembly together with those who've always advocated peace. 

The Provisional IRA (PIRA) and the main Loyalist groups put down their weapons many years ago. In May 2007, the devolved Northern Ireland Executive was successfully restored with the creation of a new government under a power-sharing agreement between Nationalist and Unionist political parties. Devolution was only completed in April 2010 when policing and justice powers were transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly from Westminster.

It is likely the persistent, increasing, violent activity of the dissident groups will have a negative effect. Normalisation is what's needed - Northern Ireland must move away from its heavy reliance on public sector jobs which will inevitably be scaled back as cutbacks brought on in part by the recession take effect.  Private investment has been flooding back to Northern Ireland in the past decade since the Provisional IRA and loyalist paramilitaries renounced violence. The big retailers and supermarket chains have moved in. But more private investment is needed, and continuing terrorist activity will not encourage that.  Although they may slow the progress, the dissidents however have not derailed the political process or moved the majority will of the people, for peace - and that is what really matters.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the RUSI.

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