The Home Secretary has just increased the threat level posed by dissident republicanism in Northern Ireland to Great Britain. The change, from moderate to substantial, means that an attack on the UK mainland is a “strong possibility.” The threat level within Northern Ireland remains at severe – the second-highest of the five ratings – meaning an attack is “highly likely.” Does this herald a return of dissident attacks on the UK mainland?
On Wednesday 11 May, the Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, issued a written statement to Parliament detailing the security services’ decision to raise the threat level. In her written statement she did not specify any reasons for the change in threat level. Below is a full copy of her statement:
“The Security Service, MI5, has increased the threat level to Great Britain from Northern Ireland-related terrorism from MODERATE to SUBSTANTIAL. This means that a terrorist attack is a strong possibility and reflects the continuing threat from Dissident Republican activity.
As a result of this change, we are working closely with the police and other relevant authorities to ensure appropriate security measures are in place.
The threat level to the UK from international terrorism remains unchanged at SEVERE, which means that an attack is highly likely. The threat level to Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland-related terrorism also remains unchanged at SEVERE.
The public should remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the police.”
In spite of this increase, the threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism to the UK mainland remains lower than the threat from international terrorism, which has been set at severe since August 2014. There has not been a Northern Ireland-related attack on the UK mainland for the last 15 years, although the threat level was raised from moderate (attack possible but not likely) to substantial (strong possibility) in 2010, and reduced back to moderate in 2012.
Dissident republican groups now operate on the criminal fringe of Northern Ireland’s society. They lack a broad popular support base and the majority of their activities are centred on smuggling rackets and low-level criminal activities.
Although militant republican groups have suffered a reduction in public support, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and security services have released a number of recent warnings detailing a growing intent by dissident republican groups to mount attacks outside Northern Ireland. The PSNI have also repeatedly warned of the growing range of capabilities displayed by such groups. These include: improvised explosive devices (IEDs), improvised rocket launchers, increased volumes of small arms (AK-variants and munitions) and under-vehicle bombs.
The recent increase in the threat level to the UK mainland does not necessarily mean that there is a specific threat to the UK, or that the security services are actively pursuing an operational cell on the mainland. Rather, it suggests that there is an increased level of concern surrounding the general capability of dissident groups to mount operations external to Northern Ireland. There is currently however no publically available evidence to suggest that such groups are in an immediate position to mount attacks outside Northern Ireland.
Security in Northern Ireland remains very tight, with ongoing security operations conducted by the PSNI, security services as well as UK military personnel. In a statement in January 2015, Andrew Parker, the Director-General of MI5, said that during 2014 most dissident republican attacks in the Province were foiled. However, he went on to say that it was “unrealistic to expect every attack plan to be stopped.”
Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr, a senior officer within the PSNI, said the announcement by the Home Secretary was “about increasing awareness and encouraging vigilance.” Reports also suggest that increasing the threat level will act as a warning to dissident groups planning attacks on the UK mainland.
Known Dissident Groups
Although no specific group was mentioned in the Home Sectary’s statement, there are currently three main dissident republican groups operating in Northern Ireland:
- The Continuity IRA (CIRA);
- The New IRA (NIRA); and,
- The Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH).
Recent reporting suggests that the change in the threat assessment is related to the growing capability of the New IRA. The group was formed in 2012 after the merger of a number of dissident groups. The most recent activities by the group include the murder of Adrian Ismay, a Northern Ireland-based prison officer, who died as a result of injuries sustained from an under-vehicle device on the 4th March 2016.
Islamic Militancy and Northern Ireland
Media sources have reported on mounting fears in Whitehall of Islamic militant groups infiltrating the UK via the porous border with the Republic of Ireland. They claim that the security focus is centred on sectarian violence instead of external threats and add that the Prevent anti-terror strategy does not apply to Northern Ireland.
The likelihood of dissident republican groups coordinating their activities with Islamic militant groups seems low. This is mainly due to the two groups’ differing objectives and values. In spite of the difficulties in policing the border between the Province and the Republic of Ireland, Islamic militant groups seeking to operate in the region would be unlikely to go unnoticed by the dissident groups that control the principal cross-border smuggling routes. Such groups would likely view the activities of foreign terrorist cells in the area as a violation of their operational space and react negatively to their presence.
The most likely method of interaction between the two groups would be indirectly through logistical assistance by organised crime. There are high levels of organised crime operating in the border region but, again, it is not clear that Republic of Ireland-based crime networks would view the activities of Islamic militant groups favourably.
Why would the New IRA mount an attack on the UK mainland?
One of the principal reasons for republican dissidents to prosecute a bombing campaign on the UK mainland is perhaps their failure to gain traction and support with the majority of the population in the Province. Attacks against high profile targets may increase their standing with disaffected elements of certain communities. Additionally, the implications of Brexit may have caused a spike in nationalism throughout the UK and may be seen by some as adding weight to the unification of Ireland.
Recent Dissident Activities
There have been an increasing number of security incidents involving dissident republicanism. There is a worrying persistency to these attacks and incidents, which show all the hallmarks of traditional IRA tactics and know how. Below is a brief outline of some of the most contemporary activities by dissident groups:
- February 2016, CIRA claim responsibility for a fatal small arms attack, involving AK-variants, on a Dublin hotel. The attack took place during a weigh-in ahead of a high profile boxing match.
- December 2015, Irish Gardaí seize weapons and explosives, including AK-variants, mortars, detonators and other explosive devices, in County Monaghan, close to the UK border. Another significant arms cache is uncovered later in the month in County Louth.
- November 2015, a vehicle containing PSNI officers is attacked with small arms. PSNI claim the attack was a targeted assassination. In the same month, the PSNI seize bomb-making and ammunition during raids in west Belfast. Over 700 assorted rounds, seven mercury tilt switches, detonator cord and AK-variants were discovered.
- 1 August 2015, PSNI locate an IED, fabricated from a mortar shell, positioned along a regular PSNI patrol route in Strabane, County Tyrone.
- 18 June 2015, PSNI officer’s car was booby-trapped with an IED in Eglinton, near Londonderry. The device was located before it could be detonated.
- 4 May 2015, two IEDs located near to an Army Reserve centre in Londonderry. In the same month, PSNI locate a large IED in north Belfast, targeted at police officers. Security services described the device as having the capability to cause carnage.
Pool Re was set up to deal with the Provisional IRA bombing campaign on the UK mainland. Although Pool Re has adapted its Scheme to the evolving threat landscape in light of the rise of Islamic militancy, we are ever mindful of legacy threats posed by dissident republicanism. Our concerns over the security services’ recent assessments are a further broadening of the threat spectrum at a time when the UK faces an unprecedented threat from Islamic militancy, thereby creating additional pressure on the security and intelligence community.
Ed Butler, Head of Risk Analysis