Location: Northern Ireland, United Kingdom
The New Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Northern Ireland Assembly (Stormont), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the British Government, the European Union (EU).
The MI5 has increased Northern Ireland’s terrorism threat level on 28/03/2023 from substantial to severe, meaning that a terrorist attack is highly likely.
The move by the British Security Service follows the shooting of a senior police officer, John Caldwell, whilst off-duty on 22/02/2023 by masked gunmen of the New IRA in Omagh, County Tyrone. Thirteen arrests have been made in connection with the attempted murder.
Despite the increase of the terrorism threat level, US President Joe Biden is still set on visiting Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in early April to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Political violence has been increasingly on the rise in Northern Ireland during recent months 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.
Further attacks include those on 17/11/2022 when a police patrol vehicle suffered a bomb attack in Strabane, County Tyrone. And on 20/11/2022 a delivery driver was held at gunpoint by a number of men carrying AK-47s who forced him to abandon his car outside the Waterside police station in Derry/Londonderry. A suspicious device was later found in the car.
Intensive investigations and searches have been conducted by the Police Service into New IRA violent activity. On 28/03/2023 ammunition was seized by the Police Terrorism Investigation Unit (TIU) in Derry/Londonderry with firearms having been found 2 days earlier. Further guns and ammunition were seized in Omagh on 23/03/2023 during police searches.
Loyalist paramilitaries have also been active in the East of Northern Ireland. Since 22/03/2023, there have been over 12 petrol bomb attacks on properties in Bangor and Newtownards, County Down by rival factions within the UDA. On 27/03/2022, the Paramilitary Crime Task Force uncovered a drug supply of over £100,000 linked to the East Belfast UVF during a car search in the country’s capital.
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 DUP has 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 by 515 to 29 votes overall. 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 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 is continuing to lack 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 disagreements regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Analysis and Implications:
Despite an increase in political violence in Northern Ireland, there have been no clashes between Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. Hence, the possibility of an immediate escalation of intercommunal violence reminiscent of the Troubles in the 20th century is extremely low. Violence perpetrated by Loyalist paramilitaries, such as the UVF and UDA, is mostly linked to drug related feuds, organized crime and racketeering and is not linked to the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. Since the motivations for recent Loyalist attacks have been economic, feuds have been internal to the various groups and factions, suggesting that there are no political objectives involved other than coercive control over local communities for personal enrichment and prestige. Although members of the public could become collateral damage of Loyalist violence, this issue resembles gang crime rather than terrorism.
Thus far, most recent attacks perpetrated by the New IRA have been targeted against members of the PSNI rather than the general public. Consequently, terrorist attacks are likely to be small-scale and aimed at law enforcement personnel but there is still a risk that the general public may become collateral damage. Taking into account the history of the IRA, their campaign of “armed struggle” is going to be aimed at state institutions for they see the presence of the British state in Northern Ireland as illegitimate. The persistent political tensions caused by Brexit have flared up Republican antagonism towards the British state in this protracted conflict, making the PSNI a desirable target for the New IRA.
The terrorism threat extends beyond Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, so increased vigilance should be advised throughout the country. The New IRA has shown its willingness to execute terrorist attacks outside of Northern Ireland in 2019 when the group claimed responsibility for sending out 5 Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) disguised as parcels destined for the London area and Glasgow. The targets included London’s Waterloo Station, London City Airport, Heathrow Airport, and the University of Glasgow. As with other terrorist groups, transport hubs and other gathering places have been vulnerable to attacks due to being frequented by a large number of people every day.
Although the MI5 has declared a rise in the terrorism threat level, this is no cause for alarm. Northern Ireland’s terrorism threat level has only been reduced in March 2022 for the first time in the past 12 years. This was due to successful security operations run by the MI5 in collaboration with the PSNI which put the New IRA on the back foot. Indeed, the MI5 and the PSNI have had ample experience dealing with Northern Ireland related terrorism since the start of the Troubles during the 1960s. Therefore, there are robust security protocols in place to thwart terrorist attacks before they occur and to mitigate the impacts of terrorism on people and property. The PSNI is already conducting additional security checks and extensive investigative searches in order to deter terrorist activity.
The support for Northern Ireland’s paramilitary organizations is small, having no backing among any major political parties. The democratic institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement have successfully functioned as conflict resolution mechanisms, yet Brexit risks unraveling the progress made thus far. The current deadlock at Stormont poses the greatest threat to peace and stability in Northern Ireland so a solution must be devised soon in order to reinstall Northern Ireland’s devolved government even if the DUP continues to refuse to cooperate. In the context of today’s cost of living crisis in the UK, there is a risk that sectarian politics may spill onto the streets if people have to look elsewhere to have their financial and security needs met, thus increasing the attractiveness of paramilitary organizations. With the PSNI under threat, if budgets cannot be agreed upon via the democratic political process then the police will find it incredibly difficult to ensure law and order with minimal resources.
Whilst there is no immediate risk of an escalation of violence in Northern Ireland, the rise in the terrorism threat level indicates an urgent need for increased vigilance throughout the UK. Presently, there is still a committed minority of extremists in Northern Ireland who are prepared to use violence in order to pursue their political agendas, which notably applies to the Republican side of the sectarian divide. Above all, Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government for over a year as the DUP refuses to agree to power-sharing due to the Northern Ireland Protocol deal caused by Brexit. In this current time of crisis, the absence of a democratic political system to negotiate competing interests may risk increasing support for paramilitaries in the future.
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