This is the 7th statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland and the final regular statement of this Parliament. It covers the threat from domestic terrorism in Northern Ireland, rather than from international terrorism, which members will be aware is the responsibility of my Rt Hon Friend the Home Secretary, who updates the House separately.
A number of small, disparate but dangerous groupings of dissident republican terrorists continue with their attempts to undermine Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions through the use of violence. However, because of the tireless efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, working in conjunction with MI5, An Garda Síochána and Army Ammunition Technical Officers, the overwhelming majority of Northern Ireland’s population are able to go about their daily lives untroubled by terrorism. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the PSNI and all its security partners for their outstanding work.
Continued vigilance is, however, essential. The threat level in Northern Ireland and Great Britain from Northern Ireland Related Terrorism remains unchanged since my last statement to Parliament in October 2014. The threat to Northern Ireland is SEVERE (an attack is highly likely) while the threat to Great Britain is MODERATE (an attack is possible but not likely). All threat levels are kept under constant review.
There were 22 national security attacks in 2014 and there has been one so far in 2015. PSNI and prison officers as well as members of the armed forces continue to be the principal targets for dissident republican terrorists and the threat to life persists. A number of these violent groupings continue to attack, or aspire to carry out attacks, including the so-called ‘new’ IRA, Óglaigh na hÉireann and factions of the Continuity IRA.
Since October 2014 when I last reported on the security situation in Northern Ireland, PSNI officers have been subject to violent attack on 5 separate occasions. In 2 particularly serious incidents violent dissidents set up booby trapped explosive devices in Strabane and Londonderry and then attempted to lure in PSNI officers by making bogus crime reports. Although the devices were intended to target responding PSNI officers, they could easily have been triggered by passers-by or even by children playing. Thankfully, both devices were made safe by Army Ammunition Technical Officers before anyone was injured.
Two further attempts to murder PSNI officers undertaking their duties were made in Londonderry and Belfast in November. In Londonderry, terrorists detonated an improvised explosive device in a residential area of the city as a police patrol vehicle passed by, while in north Belfast an explosive device was fired at a stationary PSNI vehicle. Fortunately, the occupants of both vehicles escaped uninjured but both attacks could easily have resulted in fatalities or serious casualties. In a 5th incident an explosive device was sent to the Chief Constable at Police Headquarters in Belfast.
Dissident republicans continue to engage in brutal punishment shootings as a means to try to exert fear and control within local communities.
Hoax devices have been deployed without any regard for the impact they have on the welfare of the community, including elderly residents, children and workers. These shameful incidents can cause significant disruption to local people and to businesses.
Dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry continue to threaten, and to try to intimidate, staff and contractors as they seek to carry out their work. This Government fully supports the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Prison Service as they respond to this wholly unacceptable activity and I pay tribute to all prison officers for the difficult job that they carry out.
Although risks endure, it is important to highlight the excellent progress that has been made in disrupting terrorist activity and bringing dissident republicans to justice. In October 2014 a weapons hide was uncovered on a farm in County Fermanagh. It was found to contain 5 complete explosive devices, parts for further devices, a firearm and mortar components. In November, a potential shooting attack was averted when the PSNI arrested a man in possession of a sub-machine gun in Belfast. Also in November, a total of 15 men were arrested following a long-running investigation into dissident republican activity in Newry, County Down. Of those arrested, 10 were charged under the Terrorism Act 2000 and remanded in custody.
In the Republic of Ireland, AGS has also had success in combating the threat. A weapons cache discovered in Dublin was found to contain an assault rifle, automatic pistols, ammunition and a significant quantity of bomb-making equipment that could have been intended for use in attacks in Northern Ireland. Two men were arrested in December in possession of improvised incendiary devices probably destined for use in Northern Ireland.
The close working relationship between PSNI and AGS, and their joint efforts both north and south of the border, has led to considerable success in combating the threat from dissident republican terrorists over the last six months. I am confident that both police services will do all that they can to build on this through 2015 as they make progress with a number of ongoing investigations. This work is painstaking and lengthy but there is a steadfast commitment to bringing the terrorists to justice on both sides of the border.
In my last statement I commented on in-fighting within loyalist paramilitary organisations. This has persisted in recent months and understandably remains a cause for concern for the wider community. There is no place in Northern Ireland for individuals or organisations that seek to exert fear, control or intimidation. The PSNI have assured me that they are doing all that they can to apprehend those responsible for violent and criminal acts.
As in previous reporting periods, there are individuals associated with loyalist paramilitary groups that are involved in serious criminality. However, overall, we continue to assess that the collective leaderships of the principal loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, remain committed to their ceasefires.
The Government’s Strategic Approach
The Government is clear that terrorism will not succeed in Northern Ireland; democracy and consent will always prevail. Tackling terrorism remains a Tier One priority - the highest priority for Government. We will do all that we can to support the PSNI to counter the threat as part of broader efforts by this Government to tackle terrorism, wherever it originates or whatever form it takes.
This Government has already provided additional security funding to PSNI over a 5 year period amounting to £231million. This is despite the overall spending reductions needed to deal with the deficit and the competing resource needs resulting from international terrorism. In addition, the inclusion in the financial package of Stormont House Agreement of an undertaking by the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that police funding is protected from significant reductions will help to ensure that the PSNI remains able to tackle the threat effectively.
Our strategic approach has also involved working closely with our colleagues in the devolved authorities and our partners in the Republic of Ireland on a range of issues. This cooperation greatly strengthens efforts to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland.
We continue to build a united, complementary approach to security and politics that leaves no space for violent dissident republicans. We recognise the continuing link between political and security stability. Political progress has been made this year, for example with the Stormont House Agreement, but challenges undoubtedly lie ahead.
Other strategic and political challenges, distinct from the threat from dissident republican groupings, require ongoing and concerted action to ensure Northern Ireland continues to thrive.
For instance public disorder is disruptive and distressing for the communities affected, damages Northern Ireland’s reputation abroad, and can expose police officers to risk of attack from dissident republicans. Northern Ireland enjoyed the most peaceful parading season for a number of years in 2014. Those involved in parading or protests need to do all they can to ensure this continues.
Suppressing the threat from violent dissident republicans is a difficult and, in many cases, dangerous task. Despite a challenging working environment, there have been notable successes in recent months. This is the result of the considerable effort, expertise, co-operation and resolve. But continued vigilance is needed. It is clear that these violent groupings retain lethal intent and will seek whatever opportunity they can to target the police officers and others who help to keep families, businesses and communities across Northern Ireland safe. The support of the public and their assistance and patience in response to security alerts is both invaluable and admirable.
With every attack that is mounted and the many more that are foiled, the PSNI and its security partners become more knowledgeable, resilient and able to tackle the threat and bring perpetrators to justice. Our commitment to Northern Ireland and to securing a peaceful, stable and prosperous future will not waver. We remain focused on supporting the work that continues on a daily basis to combat terrorism and ensure that people can continue to go about their daily lives safe from attack.