Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP updates the House on the security situation in Northern Ireland
This is the fifth bi-annual update to the House on the security situation in Northern Ireland and my third such statement as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The latter half of 2013 saw persistent planning and targeting by terrorists, evidenced by a significant number of attacks with lethal intent taking place in the weeks before Christmas. Many more such attempts have been disrupted. Overall, the number of national security attacks remains broadly comparable with previous years. The threat continues to be tackled and suppressed and there have been some significant successes by the security forces which should bring both immediate and longer term benefits.
While we must remain vigilant about the threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland we must not allow it to overshadow the many positives to emerge from 2013, not least the successful hosting of both the G8 Summit and the World Police and Fire Games. That such high profile events passed without any significant security incidents taking place is a major achievement.
High levels of cross border police cooperation continue to be a crucial part of efforts to combat terrorism and keep people in Northern Ireland safe. Working relationships between PSNI and An Garda Síochána are excellent. At a meeting in December between Commissioner Martin Callinan and Chief Constable Matt Baggott, along with Justice Ministers Alan Shatter and David Ford, it was agreed that consideration would be given to whether there are ways in which cooperation between the two police services could be further strengthened and updated.
Security Situation in Northern Ireland
The threat level in Northern Ireland and Great Britain has remained unchanged since my last statement to Parliament in July 2013. All threat levels, of course, are kept under constant review.
There were 30 national security attacks in Northern Ireland during 2013, over half of which took place between October and December. Had it not been for the tremendous efforts of the PSNI and their security partners in disrupting and preventing further attacks, this figure would undoubtedly have been higher. I thank the PSNI, MI5 and An Garda Síochána (AGS), for their relentless and effective pursuit of the very small, but violent, minority who favour terrorism over democracy. I also wish to pay tribute to Army Technical Officers whose expertise and courage has undoubtedly prevented injury in recent months.
As in previous years, attacks have varied in their level of sophistication. Police officers and military personnel have continued to be primary targets for dissident groups. PSNI officers in particular have faced relentless targeting in the last six months. In addition to pipe bombs attacks against police patrols and devices sent by post to senior officers, in December PSNI officers narrowly avoided injury after their vehicles were fired upon in north Belfast. Three men were subsequently arrested and charged in connection with this incident.
There have also been a number of significant attacks on commercial targets. In November, a taxi was hijacked in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast and its driver forced to drive to Belfast City Centre with an IED on board. The device later partially exploded close to the Victoria Square shopping centre. Had it functioned fully, it would have caused significant damage and injury.
Only weeks later an IED was placed in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, an area popular for its bars and restaurants and busy with those celebrating the festive season. Although only a small device, an erroneous warning about its location meant that it exploded before the police could fully clear the area. Fortunately, due to the vigilance of the public and the prompt response of the PSNI, there were no injuries.
These indiscriminate and reckless attempts to intimidate and to damage Belfast’s thriving retail and entertainment sectors highlighted a complete disregard of terrorist groups for the people and businesses at the forefront of Northern Ireland’s economic recovery. The attacks were not, however, successful and the resilience displayed by both individuals and businesses in the face of this disruption stood in stark contrast to the cowardice of those responsible for the attacks.
In September, a viable explosive device which could have killed or caused serious injury was discovered close to a special school in Lurgan. In October, postal workers and public officials were exposed to potential injury after letter bombs were sent to senior police officers and public figures. These were intercepted before they could cause injury but, once again, these acts demonstrate a blatant disregard for the safety of people working in the community.
Security alerts, hoaxes and so called “come-on” attacks also caused disruption to many in the second half of 2013, including through road and rail closures and evacuations. For the individuals, families, communities, commuters and businesses affected, this is frustrating and hugely inconvenient.
Successes and disruptions
The PSNI and MI5 continue to devote all the resources required to tackle the threat and bring those responsible for these attacks to justice. Since my last statement, there have been a number of significant disruptions, arrests and convictions as well as seizures of arms and IED components:
In December, following a PSNI/MI5 operation, three individuals were charged with a number of serious terrorist offences: conspiracy to murder members of the security forces, conspiracy to possess explosives with intent to endanger life and membership of the IRA. Two of the three individuals were further charged with aiding and abetting the attempted murder of police officers on 5 December 2013 and with aiding and abetting the possession of firearms on the same date.
An operation in Forkhill, south Armagh conducted jointly by PSNI and An Garda Síochána on 18 December led to a significant discovery of home-made explosives and equipment for bomb-making and highlighted the importance and value of joint working with colleagues in the Republic of Ireland. I congratulate the PSNI and AGS on their successes and look forward to further such co-operation.
A number of dissidents have also been found guilty of offences related to terrorist activity. In January, Gavin Coyle was sentenced to a total of 10 years after admitting having guns and explosives with intent to endanger life and being a member of a dissident republican organisation. It followed the discovery in 2011 of the arms and explosives which included assault rifles and Semtex. The operation undoubtedly saved lives and now those involved are being held to account through the justice system. In a separate case, four other men caught with guns and ammunition in Omagh were sentenced to a total of 36 years.
Dissident Republican Paramilitary Groups
The so-called ‘new IRA’ has continued to pose a significant threat over the last six months and has repeatedly demonstrated its lethal intent. In the north west, the group has been responsible for a number of low level attacks as well as an attempted mortar attack on a PSNI station. In Belfast they have claimed responsibility for the murder of Kevin Kearney, and conducted a shooting attack against police. However, the actions of this group have been severely hampered by the security forces. Arrests, searches, and seizures of terrorist materiel both north and south of the border have slowed the group’s development and prevented many more attacks. Security force successes have constrained the threat posed by this group.
Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) was particularly active in the latter half of 2013, demonstrating both its recklessness and its lethal intent with IED attacks against commercial premises in Belfast, and shooting attacks an IEDs against PSNI officers. The group has claimed responsibility for three particularly significant attacks: a vehicle borne IED which partially functioned close to Victoria Square shopping centre; a small IED which functioned in the Cathedral Quarter on a busy Friday evening; and an under vehicle IED found under a former police officer’s car by the officer and his daughter. Terrorists in Northern Ireland persist in their belief that warning calls somehow absolve them of responsibility for their indiscriminate and dangerous actions. This is not the case and these attacks, with their inadequate and inaccurate warnings, brought us dangerously close to yet another tragic loss of life.
Over the last year, CIRA has continued to splinter into competing factions. Several of these pose a localised threat to security forces, though many are more focused primarily on criminality than terrorism. One particular group in Belfast have caused extensive disruption with a number of hoaxes and pipe bombs. These frustrate the local population, damage local businesses and disrupt lives.
These Groups continue to engage in a range of criminal activity including fuel laundering, smuggling, drug dealing, robbery and extortion.
Loyalist paramilitary groups
There remain individuals associated with loyalist paramilitary organisations who continue to be involved in a range of criminal activity, including paramilitary assaults, organised crime such as drug dealing, and intimidation. Continued tensions within and between the two main loyalist paramilitary groups (UVF and UDA) also remain a cause for concern. During 2013 we have witnessed loyalist-related public disorder including protests and security incidents that have taken place outside the offices of democratically elected representatives. There have also been attempts by paramilitaries to gain greater influence and control within loyalist communities.
Overall levels of criminality and violence within loyalist communities have not changed significantly in recent years. But violence and intimidation continue to be a concern and will not be tolerated. Regardless of the label applied to these individuals - terrorist, paramilitary or criminal – and whatever their motivation, every effort will be made to bring these people to justice.
Significant resources are being deployed to tackle violence and criminality in loyalist communities. The PSNI has been actively pursuing illegal activity across all communities with a number of recent successes, particularly in east Belfast. Police officers will continue to build an evidence base against suspects.
Although some individuals who are involved in serious criminality have connections to loyalist paramilitary organisations we continue to assess that the collective leaderships of the UDA and UVF remain committed to the peace process and reform of their organisations. This situation is kept under regular review and is discussed regularly between NIO, PSNI and DoJ.
Paramilitary Style Shootings and Attacks
We have witnessed a number of particularly brutal paramilitary style attacks in the last six months. In October, the so-called ‘new IRA’ claimed to have shot and murdered Kevin Kearney in Belfast. In September, individuals believed to be linked to the east Belfast UVF shot Jemma McGrath, causing serious injury. A number of foreign nationals have also been subjected to a series of racist, paramilitary style attacks.
These crimes and others like them which have caused fear and, in some cases, devastating injuries, are shocking acts. Those who perpetrate these crimes will be held to account by the police and the criminal justice system. We are actively supporting the PSNI as they seek to tackle those involved in criminality within local communities.
PSNI Resources & Funding
The security situation and ongoing public disorder relating to flags and parades have placed a heavy burden on the PSNI in recent months. Over the summer period and faced with significant and sustained public order challenges, the short-term deployment of police officers from forces in Great Britain under mutual aid arrangements proved very successful. As we move forward in 2014, the PSNI is working closely with its partners in the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Policing Board to guarantee longer-term PSNI resource resilience.
This Government continues to offer its full support to the PSNI to ensure that they have the capability they need to tackle the terrorist threat. The PSNI is now three years into a four-year funding package provided by this Government in 2011. This will ensure that the PSNI is in receipt of £199.5 million for the period up to 2015 to tackle the threat faced from terrorism in Northern Ireland. A further £31 million in security funding will be provided in 2015-16. This money is helping to tackle the threat and ensure that PSNI have the resources they need to protect the people of Northern Ireland.
This has been a difficult six months from a security perspective, coming as it did after a sustained period of public disorder relating to flags and parades. However, as a result of the concerted and sustained efforts of the security forces, we have also seen some significant arrests, seizures, convictions and disruptions. We continue to contain the threat from terrorism and remain fully committed to driving it down in the future, keeping the people of Northern Ireland safe and secure. There will be no let up in the pressure we apply to terrorists who reject democracy and who offer nothing but violence.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2014, I am committed to working with the security forces and colleagues in the devolved authorities and in the Republic of Ireland as we seek to build on the achievements of 2013. The success of the G8 Summit held in Fermanagh in June, followed by Derry/Londonderry’s enthusiastic embrace of its city of culture status and the highly successful hosting of the World Police and Fire Games showcased Northern Ireland at its very best – prepared, resilient, highly capable and determined.