The political and security situations in Northern Ireland have always been inextricably linked. Since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, the majority of its population has traditionally been regarded as unionist or loyalist, meaning that they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. However, there has always been a significant minority of nationalists or republicans who support a united Ireland and regard themselves as Irish rather than British. Paramilitary organisations on both sides have carried out campaigns of terrorism, most notably during the Troubles, the three decades of conflict from the late 1960s onwards that resulted in over 3,000 deaths.
The nature of the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland has changed significantly in recent years. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and the main loyalist groups have ceased their terrorist campaigns and engaged with the political process. In April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, paving the way for a devolved Northern Ireland Executive based on power sharing between unionist and nationalist political parties.
However, dissident republican groups reject the political process and the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement, and continue to carry out terrorist attacks. They seek to destabilise Northern Ireland through the tactical use of violence, targeting members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and other security personnel as well as seeking to cause disruption and economic damage.
As the security situation has evolved, so too has the role of MI5 in Northern Ireland. MI5 took on responsibility for national security intelligence work in Northern Ireland in 2007.
This brought the national security arrangements in Northern Ireland into line with those in the rest of the UK.
Dissident Republican terrorist groups
Dissident republican terrorist groups pose the most significant threat to national security in Northern Ireland. There are four main dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland: the new IRA, the Continuity IRA (CIRA), Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH – which recently split into two factions ONH and IRB), and Arm na Poblacht (ANP). All oppose the peace process and regard violence as a legitimate means of achieving a united Ireland. Since 2000 dissident republicans have mounted attacks in Northern Ireland and between 2009 and 2017 they were responsible for the deaths of two PSNI officers, two British soldiers and two prison officers. Dissident republican attacks often involve significant risk to members of the public, who are also regularly inconvenienced by the disruption involved in the necessary police response to these and other security incidents (such as hoaxes).
Aside from attacks against the security forces, dissident republicans also conduct violent attacks (shootings, beatings and intimidation) against people within the communities, in an effort to generate community support and undermine the PSNI. Many dissident republicans are also heavily involved in criminal activities for personal gain, including smuggling and extortion.
The efforts of the PSNI, working in conjunction with MI5, An Garda Síochna and Army Ammunition Technical Officers, mean that the overwhelming majority of Northern Ireland’s population are able to go about their daily lives untroubled by terrorism. However, although security force pressure is successfully constraining the threat and all dissident republican groups are under pressure, some attacks continue to get through. There were 5 national security attacks in 2017 and the threat to life posed by dissident republicans persists.
International terrorism in Northern Ireland
International terrorism currently poses a severe national security threat to all parts of the UK.
In recent years there have been cases on both sides of the UK-Republic of Ireland border of individuals being charged and convicted of offences related to international terrorism. MI5 and the PSNI work closely with colleagues from An Garda Síochna, Ireland’s police force, to counter the threat from international terrorism.