The terror threat level in Northern Ireland has been raised from “substantial” to “severe”, meaning that an attack is highly likely. This decision was taken by MI5, the UK’s domestic security service, based on the latest intelligence and analysis of factors that drive the threat.
The increase in the threat level comes after a series of incidents involving Northern Ireland Related Terrorism (NIRT), a term used to describe violent acts motivated by political or ideological views related to the status of Northern Ireland. In recent months, NIRT groups have targeted police officers and civilians, putting their lives and those of innocent bystanders at risk.
Recently there was the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell who was shot multiple times in Omagh on 22 February. The attack is believed to have been carried out by dissident republicans who oppose the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The attack on DCI Caldwell was widely condemned by political leaders and the public, who expressed their support for the police and their rejection of violence. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and other security agencies have been working tirelessly to prevent further attacks and bring those responsible to justice.
However, the threat from NIRT remains high, as some groups continue to seek to undermine the stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland. The UK government has urged the public to remain vigilant, but not be alarmed, and to report any suspicious activity or concerns to the PSNI.
The government has also reaffirmed its commitment to supporting the peace process and the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, said: “The political future of Northern Ireland rests with the democratic will of the people and not the violent actions of the few. Together we will ensure there is no return to the violence of the past.”
The Dissident Republican Threat: A Growing Challenge for Northern Ireland
Dissident republicans are a small but persistent minority of Irish nationalists who reject the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. They seek to overthrow British rule and unite Ireland by force, using paramilitary tactics such as bombings, shootings and intimidation. Dissident republicans are also opposed to the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, which involves both unionists and nationalists.
In recent years, dissident republican activity has increased, posing a serious threat to the security and stability of Northern Ireland. According to MI5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, the threat level from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland has been raised from substantial to severe, meaning an attack is very likely. This follows a series of incidents that have demonstrated the capability and intent of dissident groups to target police officers, prison staff, politicians and civilians.
Some of the most prominent dissident republican groups are:
- The New IRA: Formed in 2012 by a merger of several splinter factions, the New IRA is considered the most active and dangerous dissident group. It was responsible for the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019, as well as several bomb attacks and shootings. The New IRA also claimed responsibility for the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in February 2021, who was shot multiple times outside his home.
- The Continuity IRA: Established in 1986 as a breakaway from the Provisional IRA, the Continuity IRA has carried out sporadic attacks over the years, mainly targeting security forces. In 2016, it killed prison officer Adrian Ismay with a booby-trap bomb under his car. In 2020, it claimed responsibility for a gun attack on a police patrol in Belfast.
- Arm na Poblachta: A relatively new group that emerged in 2017, Arm na Poblachta (Army of the Republic) has been involved in a few incidents, such as planting a bomb outside a police station in Londonderry in 2020. In March 2021, it issued a threat against relatives of police officers, saying they would be considered legitimate targets.
The reasons behind the rise of dissident republican activity are complex and multifaceted. Some of the factors that may have contributed are:
- The impact of Brexit: The UK’s departure from the EU has created uncertainty and tension over the status of Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic of Ireland. Dissident republicans have exploited this situation to undermine the peace process and stoke sectarian divisions. They have also used Brexit as a recruitment tool, claiming that it proves that British rule is illegitimate and oppressive.
- The political vacuum: The power-sharing government in Northern Ireland collapsed in 2017 due to a dispute between the two main parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This left a political vacuum for three years, during which public services deteriorated and social issues were neglected. Dissident republicans filled this gap by providing alternative forms of governance and justice in some areas, such as imposing punishment shootings and beatings on alleged criminals.
- The generational gap: Many dissident republicans are young people who have grown up after the Troubles and have no direct experience of the violence and suffering that it caused. They may feel alienated from mainstream politics and society, and attracted by the romanticised image of armed struggle that dissident groups offer. They may also resent the former members of the Provisional IRA who have embraced politics and compromise, seeing them as sell-outs or traitors.
The challenge of dealing with the dissident republican threat is not only a security one, but also a political and social one. It requires cooperation and dialogue between all parties involved, including the British and Irish governments, the Northern Ireland Executive, the police and justice agencies, and civil society organisations. It also requires addressing the underlying causes of discontent and marginalisation that fuel dissident activity, such as poverty, unemployment, education, mental health and community relations.
Dissident republicans represent a minority view that is rejected by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, who support peace and democracy. However, they cannot be ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. They pose a real and present danger to lives and livelihoods, as well as to the hard-won achievements of the peace process.