This is the first written statement of this Parliament on the security situation in Northern Ireland. 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.
In the nine months since my last update to the House, the same small groups of dissident republican terrorists have continued their attempts to undermine Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions through the use of violence. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and MI5 have worked tirelessly to limit the threat they are able to pose. Because of these efforts the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s population are able to go about their daily lives untroubled by terrorism.
Continued vigilance is essential. The threat level in Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland Related Terrorism remains SEVERE (an attack is highly likely) and continues to evolve while the threat to Great Britain is MODERATE (an attack is possible but not likely). There have been sixteen national security attacks by violent dissident republicans this year in which they have sought to cause harm and death. The primary targets have been PSNI officers, but prison officers and members of the armed forces have also been targeted.
In May and July two radio-controlled explosive devices were deployed in Belfast and Lurgan in an attempt to target security force personnel and, in June, an under-vehicle improvised explosive device was deployed against two off-duty PSNI officers at their home address in County Londonderry. Fatalities or serious casualties were avoided in these attacks by narrow margins.
In August a device initiated inside a postal van while it was parked in Palace barracks in County Down. No one was injured but there was considerable damage caused by the fire that followed to the vehicle and others nearby. In October a viable improvised explosive device was recovered from the grounds of a Londonderry hotel due to host a PSNI recruitment event, and several days later an under-vehicle device was planted in Belfast. It is fortunate that both devices were discovered before they exploded. The following day a military hand grenade was thrown at PSNI officers responding to reports of anti-social behaviour in Belfast; the grenade landed by the officers’ feet but thankfully did not explode. In November two police officers in their patrol vehicle in Belfast were extremely fortunate to escape uninjured when they were targeted with an automatic rifle.
The callous and reckless nature of these attacks means that there remains a very real threat of harm to members of the public. Even where there is no injury to people or damage to property, it is often the case that members of the public suffer significant disruption. This can include being forced out of their homes overnight while police deal with security alerts, not knowing if the device is real or hoax and always having to assume the worst.
As part of their unsuccessful attempts to prove their relevance to a society that wants to move on, these violent dissident republicans continue to resort to brutal assaults on members of their own communities in an attempt to exert fear and control.
Our Strategic Response
The Government is clear that terrorism will not succeed in Northern Ireland; democracy and consent will always prevail. Tackling terrorism remains a Tier One risk, the highest priority for this Government. This approach is demonstrated in the provision of £231 million of Additional Security Funding to the PSNI from 2011-2016.
As a result of the strategic approach to tackling the threat from Northern Ireland Related Terrorism pursued by this Government, the increase in terrorist activity that emerged in 2008 has been stemmed. There were 22 national security related attacks in 2014 compared with 40 in 2010. But the need for total vigilance in the face of the continuing threat remains.
The recent Security and Defence Review confirmed we will continue to maintain our investment in capabilities to keep the people of Northern Ireland safe. Looking ahead, as the Chancellor confirmed in the Spending Review and Autumn Statement, the UK Government is making available £160 million in Additional Security Funding to the PSNI over the next five years to assist their efforts to tackle terrorism. This is a significant package at a time of constrained spending and recognises the SEVERE threat from NIRT and the exceptional demands it places upon the police.
The PSNI and MI5 have continued to work incredibly hard in the period since my last update to the House, in many cases placing themselves at significant risk in order to keep people safe. The PSNI has made over 100 terrorism-related arrests of violent dissident republicans since the beginning of the year. In the Republic of Ireland, an intelligence-led operation by An Garda Síochána, the Republic of Ireland police force, resulted in a significant arrest and charge, as well as the seizure of a large quantity of bomb-making equipment. Joint working between PSNI, MI5 and the Garda remains crucial in the investigation and disruption of the violent dissident republican threat.
The Government welcomes the enactment of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 which was introduced by the Minister of Justice. Its provisions include measures to reform committal proceedings, reduce delay in criminal proceedings and enhance case management, which are important and necessary steps forward. The PSNI and MI5 go to tremendous effort to bring violent dissident republicans before the courts. It is vital, if the threat is to be tackled and people kept safe, that the criminal justice system as a whole is ready and equipped to deal with these cases. The Government welcomes the commitment in the Fresh Start Agreement by the Executive to further work to ensure cases can be processed through the courts more quickly.
I would like take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work of the Northern Ireland Prison Service who conduct themselves with exemplary dedication in what can be a very difficult environment.
Continuing Paramilitary Activity
On 20 October I published the Assessment of Structure, Roles and Purpose of Paramilitary Groups and made a statement to the House. The Assessment stated that structures remain in place for both republican and loyalist groups. It is clear that individuals associated with paramilitary groups remain engaged in serious criminality. The continued existence and activities of these paramilitary groups, albeit much diminished from their peak, undermines the normalisation of our society. Paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland were not justified in the past and they are not justified today. During the recent political talks, the determination of the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Irish Government to achieve a Northern Ireland society free from the malign impact of paramilitarism was clear.
I welcome the commitments contained in the resulting Fresh Start Agreement on this issue. These include an enhanced effort to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime, a new NI Executive strategy to disband paramilitary groups and the establishment of a monitoring and implementation body on progress towards ending paramilitarism. I look forward to continuing to work with all involved on this serious matter. Active support by members of the community and by political representatives is essential if we are to move towards a Northern Ireland where the legacy of paramilitary crime is no longer felt in our communities.
I applaud the efforts of all of those who worked together to ensure that the vast majority of parades across Northern Ireland were peaceful this year. While it is encouraging that we have not returned to the level of violence seen in 2013, it remains a matter of significant concern that disorder in Belfast over a three day period in July resulted in the injury of 25 police officers. This is completely unacceptable. In the same month, a rogue group of loyalists made a public statement to the media threatening PSNI officers and the Parades Commission. This too is unacceptable.
This Government will not tolerate acts or threats of violence by any part of the Northern Ireland community. The strain policing the parading season places on PSNI resources should not be ignored, with PSNI figures estimating the total cost to them of this year’s season at £6.7 million. There remains much to be done across the community to deal with instability caused by issues such as flags and parades.
The SEVERE level of threat we face from violent dissident republicans is likely to continue. It is likely that a number of the many attacks planned will continue to materialise but the police, working closely with the Garda, will exert every effort to disrupt this violent criminal activity and prosecute those responsible.
As the Government’s Northern Ireland manifesto made clear, there can be no greater responsibility than the safety and security of the people of Northern Ireland and of the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why will always give the fullest possible backing to the men and women of the PSNI who, working alongside other partners such as MI5 and An Garda Siochana, do such an outstanding job. I would like to thank them all for the work they do. Under this Government there will be no let-up in our efforts to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.