Investigations into Northern Ireland-related terrorism are directed from MI5’s declared headquarters in Palace Barracks, just outside Belfast, where it works in close partnership with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and other agencies to tackle the continuing threat.
Prior to 2007 it was the PSNI, and before it the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), that had lead responsibility for the national security intelligence work relating to Northern Ireland. Investigations are now run in close co-operation with PSNI and in line with the terms of the St Andrews Agreement (2006). The PSNI continue to provide the operational police response in countering terrorism and protecting the community of Northern Ireland.
MI5 also works closely with its national security partner in the Republic of Ireland, the Crime and Security branch of An Garda Síochána (AGS).
The majority of current national security resource and attention is focused on dissident republicans as these groups pose the greatest threat. Some other groups, like loyalist paramilitary groups, pose further public order challenges for the PSNI. However, both PSNI and MI5 are also required to participate in other work connected to the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland. For example, at the request of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, MI5 and PSNI recently contributed to a report into paramilitary groups who declared ceasefire as part of the Good Friday Agreement, including the Irish National Liberation Army, the Provisional IRA and Loyalist Groups. Both MI5 and PSNI also continue to participate fully in an extensive range of ongoing historic enquiries.
In addition to normal oversight arrangements, national security arrangements in Northern Ireland are also subject to review by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Powers. By extension, MI5 also has contact with some of the policing oversight bodies, including the Police Ombudsman Northern Ireland.
In reality, prior to 2007, when it took on the lead role for intelligence on Northern Irish Related Terrorism, MI5 acted in a support capacity in Northern Ireland. When direct rule was imposed in 1972, the newly formed Northern Ireland Office established the post of Director and Coordinator of Intelligence (DCI), which came to be filled by senior secondments from MI5. The DCI title was somewhat of a misnomer, as it had no powers to direct the intelligence work of other agencies, and the RUC was given primacy over all aspects of counter-terrorist intelligence work in Northern Ireland in 1976. The main function of the DCI was to provide strategic intelligence assessments and advice to the Secretary of State and to Whitehall, in order to inform Government policy. The DCI was supported in his/her role by a small staff producing strategic intelligence assessments to inform Government policy, and by liaison officers in both RUC/PSNI and Army Headquarters. MI5 also had a very small number of staff, managed directly from London, performing various specialist intelligence collection roles (including a small strategic source handling unit), either on behalf of the RUC/PSNI or for DCI’s staff. At no point during the Troubles did the total number of MI5 staff in Northern Ireland exceed around 50 people.