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Intel Brief on Northern Ireland

Updated: Sep 2, 2023


 
Map of Northern Ireland and United Kingdom

Date: 21/08/2023

Location: Northern Ireland, United Kingdom

Parties involved: Northern Irish Paramilitary Groups (IRA, UDA, UVF), the Northern Ireland Assembly (Stormont), the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the UK Government.


The Events:

  • The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is experiencing a deepening data security crisis over the mishandling of personal information that could be used to target employees.

  • On 08/08/2023 a spreadsheet was mistakenly published online containing the surnames, initials, ranks or grades, location, and departments of all current PSNI officers and civilian staff members.

  • The data breach happened after the information was included in error in response to a Freedom of Information Request. It is understood to be the worst data breach in the organization’s history since its creation following the Good Friday Agreement.

  • The data in the spreadsheet included information about officers based in the PSNI’s organized crime unit, officers based at ports and airports, and staff based at MI5 offices in Holywood, County Down.

  • This is the second data breach in weeks after a police-issued laptop, radio and documents were stolen from a car in Northern Ireland on 06/07/2023.

  • A third data breach occurred on 14/08/2023 after a document was posted online with details of 11 PSNI officers. The information remained online for 2 days before being taken down.

  • The PSNI data is in the hands of dissident Republicans. On 14/08/2023 the PSNI leaked document was posted on a wall opposite a Sinn Fein office on Falls Road, West Belfast along with a threatening message.

  • On 17/08/2023 a man was arrested in County Armagh on suspicion of collection of information likely to be useful to terrorists. The man was subsequently released on bail.

  • On 19/08/2023 a second man was arrested and charged in County Derry/Londonderry under the Terrorism Act for being in possession of articles for use in terrorism. The investigation of criminality linked to last week’s PSNI data breach continues.

  • Several PSNI members have applied for personal protection weapons due to the increased risk to their lives and property as a result of the data breaches.

  • The Northern Irish Secretary announced that the UK government will be providing specialist support to the PSNI in order to mitigate the repercussions of the data breach crisis.

  • Northern Ireland’s terrorism threat level is listed as severe by the MI5, meaning that a terrorist attack is highly likely.

  • Political violence has been on the rise in Northern Ireland over the past year as the PSNI has come under attack from dissident Republicans. The Arm na Poblachta (Army of the Republic) said police officers' families would also be considered targets.

  • On 22/02/2023, a senior police officer was shot whilst off-duty by masked gunmen of the New IRA in Omagh, County Tyrone.

  • Loyalist paramilitaries also continue to be active in Northern Ireland. Paramilitary umbrella group, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), reported that Loyalist paramilitaries have withdrawn their support for the Good Friday Agreement.

  • Violence related to drug feuds as well as other types of organized crime perpetrated by factions of the UVF and UDA (Loyalist) groups are almost a daily occurrence in Northern Ireland.

Context:

  • The Troubles were an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland between Irish Republicans and British Unionists lasting for around 30 years since the late 1960s until 1998. The conflict ended with the signing of the (Belfast) Good Friday Agreement in 1998 stipulating the creation of a devolved Northern Irish government and the removal of British security installations which include those on the border.

  • Renewed tensions in Northern Ireland can be linked to Brexit. The Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU came into force on 01/01/2021, where checks on goods and people traveling from Great Britain take place at Northern Ireland’s ports instead of at the Irish border. The Democratic Unionist Party argued that this places a de facto border in the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

  • British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new Brexit Northern Ireland deal was passed in the UK Parliament on 23/03/2023. This deal consists of 2 parts: the Westminster Framework and the Stormont Brake. The Westminster Framework intends to split goods traveling from the UK into two different lanes where only goods destined for Ireland and the rest of the EU would have to be checked. Moreover, the Stormont Brake would give the Northern Ireland Assembly powers to object to new EU rules. However, the European Court of Justice would still have a final say on whether Northern Ireland must follow certain EU single market rules.

  • The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has voted against the deal with Unionists arguing that Northern Ireland would remain imprisoned by the EU legal order, placing a barrier between them and the rest of the UK as Northern Ireland would not be able to properly diverge and take advantage of Brexit.

  • The Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended since February 2022, meaning that Northern Ireland continues to be without a functioning government. The power-sharing agreement which allows a government to be established has not been reached as the DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest Unionist party, has been boycotting Stormont over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Analysis and Implications:

  • Considering that most recent attacks perpetrated by the New IRA have been targeted against members of the PSNI, the current data breaches are cause for serious concern. The fact that the IRA is now in the possession of very sensitive information has put staff members of the PSNI and their families in a very vulnerable position with many fearing for their safety. A number of PSNI officers and civilian workers have had to resign or relocate immediately, with some choosing to leave Northern Ireland altogether as a result of the heightened security risk. The PSNI is very likely to struggle with staff retention and recruitment, particularly among the Catholic community, at a time when numbers are already stretched. Therefore, the repercussions of the PSNI data security crisis are likely to be severe as the organization is in disarray and grappling with past wounds of the Troubles.


  • The data breaches are likely to undermine the PSNI’s ability to combat terrorism and dissidence from paramilitary groups opposed to the peace process. The intelligence operations of the PSNI have especially been compromised with the identity of undercover operatives infiltrating extremist organizations being revealed. A robust intelligence apparatus is vital in order to identify and assess potential terrorist operations and targets, thus the disruption to the PSNI’s intelligence system is probable to cause a window of opportunity for political dissidents and criminal gangs. The current PSNI intelligence operatives, particularly those responding to the MI5, are expected to be replaced, which will pose more difficulties as new staff will need training and adjustment to the local security landscape. Moreover, the grave effect the data breaches have had on individual police morale may further disrupt policing efforts.


  • As previously concluded by Dyami, terrorist attacks are likely to be small-scale and targeted at members of the PSNI. The data breaches, however, have increased the likelihood that such attacks will occur as it has armed the New IRA with priceless intelligence on desired targets. With the PSNI currently operating at a disadvantage, such attacks may also be harder to pre-empt. Consequently, there is a greater risk to the general public as any attack may produce collateral damage. Whilst there have been no reports of significant incidents thus far, dissidents may be trying to organize on how to best leverage their advantage considering their limited capability. Northern Ireland’s paramilitary organizations have little support among its various communities and no backing among any major political parties. Therefore, paramilitary groups will probably use the data breaches to spread fear and intimidate communities in hope to stoke up tensions.


  • On the other hand, the PSNI has chosen to meet the present data security crisis with strength and resilience. Its prompt investigation into the criminality surrounding the data breaches and subsequent arrests show an organization that is up and running despite the ensuing struggles. The PSNI will be receiving specialist support and expertise from the UK government which should aid in the mitigation of the security risks the Northern Irish police force is facing today. It is vital that the general public is reassured that the PSNI will not allow itself to be intimidated or prevented from performing vital work by paramilitary groups. Undoubtedly, the current situation in Northern Ireland has called attention to the importance of data security for government institutions which could be misused by criminal organizations. The mitigation of the crisis will depend on devising new and secure databases where personnel data is spread across multiple access tiers.


  • Furthermore, the PSNI data security crisis may have consequences for the UK’s Brexit process. The security threats presented by the data breaches call for the immediate reactivation of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions in order to mitigate the impacts of the crisis and allocate resources and budgets for law enforcement. But the DUP, who originally collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly in February 2022, may use the data security crisis to extract concessions from the UK government on the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol. Northern Ireland’s tentative and incomplete post-Troubles cohesion presents a fragile peace that could have sectarian politics spill onto the streets if the delicate balance is disturbed. Westminster will be dealing with a complex challenge in pushing for the restoration of power-sharing, but so far it has neglected the developing crisis. The stability of Northern Ireland has security ramifications for the whole of the UK, and any push in any direction or the other could foment violence or support for paramilitaries.

The PSNI data breach will have serious repercussions extending far into the future. This particularly involves the personal security of PSNI staff members who will have to take exceptional measures to protect themselves and their families. The data security crisis in Northern Ireland has provided terrorists with a window of opportunity to conduct small-scale targeted attacks against members of the PSNI. Presently, there is still a committed minority of political extremists in Northern Ireland who are prepared to use any opportunity to meet their political agenda through fear and intimidation. Lastly, the data security crisis may also be exploited by the DUP to reshape the Brexit balance due to the urgent need for Westminster to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly to working order.

 
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