This is the sixth statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland.
Twenty years have now passed since the 1994 ceasefires in Northern Ireland. There can be no doubt that the security situation has been transformed over the last 2 decades; the vast majority of people are able to lead their lives unaffected by the current security threat.
Throughout the year, Northern Ireland has shown once again that it is moving ahead, successfully hosting high-profile events including the Giro d’Italia and the Queen’s Baton Relay, all of which passed off successfully and without security incident. The announcement earlier this year that the Open Golf Championship is returning to Royal Portrush in 2019 for the first time since 1951 is further testament to this.
While so much has been achieved, Northern Ireland continues to face a terrorist threat from a small minority of groups who hold democracy in contempt. They are violent and reckless and offer nothing positive to their communities. Not surprisingly, they have almost no popular support. They do, however, retain both lethal intent and capability.
Nature and extent of the threat
The threat level in Northern Ireland and Great Britain from Northern Ireland related terrorism remains unchanged since my last statement to Parliament in January 2014. The threat to Northern Ireland is currently SEVERE (an attack is highly likely) while the threat to Great Britain is MODERATE (an attack is possible but not likely). There have been 18 national security attacks in 2014.
Police and prison officers remain the principal targets for violent dissident republicans; attacks upon them continue to vary considerably in terms of sophistication. Since my last statement, the sterling work of the PSNI and MI5, who co-operate closely with An Garda Síochána (AGS) and others, has undoubtedly saved lives and helped to tackle the threat. I wish to pay tribute to all that they do to make Northern Ireland a safer place and to acknowledge the ongoing and significant personal risk they bear both on and off duty. As a direct result of their efforts there have been major disruptions, arrests and convictions in recent months as well as seizures of arms and IED components, both north and south of the border, that have impeded violent dissident republican activity.
Since my last statement, law enforcement activity on both sides of the border has impeded the activities of the so-called new IRA. Following the arrest and charge of alleged members of the leadership at the end of 2013, the group’s activities were hampered. For some months it resorted to sending letter bombs to army recruiting offices in GB and to prison officers in Northern Ireland. These crude devices have swollen the number of national security incidents but were designed to do nothing more than garner media attention and intimidate the recipients. However, in March the group demonstrated its continued lethal intent when it used an explosive projectile against a police patrol in a residential area of west Belfast. This reckless attack was designed to kill police officers, but it came perilously close to injuring or killing an innocent family passing at the time.
The PSNI subsequently seized 2.5kgs of semtex from this group, which was undoubtedly intended for use in further lethal explosive devices. In the Republic of Ireland, An Garda Síochána arrested and charged a suspected new IRA bombmaker. Despite these successes, the group continues to mount attacks and in late May it conducted a firebomb attack on a hotel; a month later armed men fired upon an unoccupied vehicle used by G4S staff in Belfast. However, since then the PSNI have had further successes, including the arrest and charge of another individual alleged to hold a leadership role in the group.
Security partners have also had significant success in curtailing the activities of Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH). In March, the PSNI arrested an individual in Belfast in possession of an explosive device which was ready to be deployed. In May, the AGS arrested a number of individuals in possession of an even larger device, almost certainly destined to be deployed in Northern Ireland.
These arrests and disruptions demonstrate the productive working relationship between security forces north and south of the border and have ensured that ONH has been unable to carry out any significant terrorist attacks since Christmas 2013. Unfortunately, despite this pressure, members of ONH in Belfast persist in resorting to savage vigilante attacks against members of their own community in an attempt to exercise control.
Localised Continuity IRA (CIRA) members continue to plan attacks against police officers. These occasionally materialise but CIRA remains factional and riven by in-fighting. In March, PSNI recovered a crude under-vehicle explosive device from a roadside in Belfast. It was either abandoned by CIRA members or had fallen off a vehicle. In either case, it had not functioned as intended and was instead left to be found by members of the public. This kind of dangerous, wholly misguided activity is typical of this disparate group which, along with many dissident republicans, continues to use Republicanism as a cover for criminality and self-gain. Not only do dissident republicans exploit and intimidate their local communities, they are also engaged in drug dealing, robbery, extortion and punishment attacks.
These people must be held to account. In May the Court of Appeal in Belfast upheld the judgment against two CIRA members, John Paul Wootton and Brendan McConville, responsible for the murder of PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll in 2009. The road to justice has been a long one for Constable Carroll’s family and I pay tribute to their fortitude. More recently, in September, 4 dissident republicans were convicted of a range of terrorism offences including the use of a terrorist training camp, an excellent result which highlights the sustained pressure that is being brought to bear against violent dissident republicans.
Loyalist paramilitary organisations
The 2 principal loyalist paramilitary organisations, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) continue to exist. Tensions and in-fighting within both the UDA and UVF also persist and remain a cause for concern.
Overall, we continue to assess that the collective leaderships of the UDA and UVF remain committed to the peace process and, in some cases, have played a positive role in preventing public disorder, particularly around parading. However, I remain concerned that there are areas where militant and criminally focused individuals are seeking to use their paramilitary connections to exploit the discontent which exists in parts of the loyalist community.
This exploitation is mainly for personal gain and can take many different forms including attacks on property belonging to elected representatives, drug dealing, extortion, intimidation and brutal punishment attacks within their own communities. This must be, and is, being tackled robustly. I fully support the action being taken by the PSNI to apprehend those responsible. This is not an easy task and it takes time to build an evidential case but the full force of the law needs to be brought to bear upon these thugs.
While the parading season in Northern Ireland passed off largely peacefully this year thanks to the strong, co-operative approach of all of those involved, efforts must continue to ensure that public disorder of the type witnessed in previous years does not recur in the future.
The Government’s strategic approach
The Government is clear that terrorism will never prevail in Northern Ireland. The 2010 National Security Strategy made tackling Northern Ireland related terrorism a tier 1 priority - the highest priority for government. As Secretary of State I provide regular updates to the Prime Minister and colleagues on the progress being made on tackling the terrorist threat.
The Government provided additional security funding to PSNI totalling £231million between 2011 and 2015 to support them in tackling the threat. This is significant extra funding at a time when overall budgets are falling and when we also face a very significant threat from international terrorism. It is a matter of great concern that this additional funding will now have less of an impact because of the decision to severely reduce the overall funding provided by the Executive to the PSNI, caused partly by failure to implement welfare reform. There is no doubt that this will have a negative effect on the PSNI’s operational capability in some areas, notwithstanding the additional support provided by the Government.
Our strategic approach also involves working closely with our partners in the Republic of Ireland on a range of issues. Co-operation has never been better, both politically and in security terms, and we want to build on this, removing practical barriers to co-operation and maximising our ability to act against the threat on both sides of the border.
It is worth noting that the inability of the National Crime Agency (NCA) to operate to its full extent in Northern Ireland means there will be proceeds of crime that are not seized and criminals who are not apprehended. The choice on whether to allow the NCA to operate in relation to devolved matters rightly rests with the Northern Ireland Executive. But that choice has consequences. Early resolution of this issue is essential to avoid serious law enforcement gaps emerging in Northern Ireland in response to issues of deep public concern, such as drug enforcement, human trafficking and other forms of serious criminality.
While the limit on the NCA’s powers in Northern Ireland does not have a significant direct impact on the terrorist threat, it does make it harder to seize assets from individuals involved in criminality with connections to paramilitary groupings. Depriving Northern Ireland of the full support and operational capacity of the NCA also places further pressure on the PSNI’s already limited budgets and resources.
We continue to suppress the threat from terrorism and remain fully committed to tackling it in the future, keeping the people of Northern Ireland safe and secure. This takes considerable effort and we must remain vigilant - there can be no let-up in our efforts. We are totally focused on supporting the vital work that continues on a daily basis in Northern Ireland to combat terrorism.