A series of attacks in Northern Ireland suggest increasing confidence and capability among dissident Republican groups
The Home Secretary’s warning to Parliament on Wednesday that MI5 had decided to elevate the threat level posed by Northern Ireland-related terrorism in Great Britain to ‘substantial’ was a stark reminder of Gerry Adams’s old quip that those men and women willing to kill for a united Ireland did not ‘go away you know’.
The Security Service nosw considers an attack in England, Scotland or Wales to be ‘a strong possibility’, which suggests an increasing confidence and capability among dissident Republican organisations, which reman implacably opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.
For many in Great Britain, the threat from Irish republicans mostly stirs memories of the 1990s, when Provisional IRA bomb scares were a feature of life and major attacks struck high profile targets including Downing Street and Canary Wharf.
Rather than being associated with violence today, Northern Ireland instead exports Open-winning golfers and serves as the backdrop for Game of Thrones, leaving many surprised when the terror threat was raised this week.
However, in Northern Ireland itself, the danger posed by dissident groups has remained high since 1998, particularly for members of the Armed Forces, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and prison staff, with between 15 and 40 attacks recorded a year since 2000 according to a government assessment of paramilitarism in the region published last October.
The groups have also been a scourge on the very communities they claim to represent, with beatings and shootings carried out by their members brutalising adults and children alike.
Dissident gunmen are believed to have been involved in the murder of Michael McGibbon, a father of four killed in a ‘punishment shooting’ in Belfast last month, while another man previously targeted by dissidents was murdered as he delivered Chinese food on Monday night.
Past assessments of dissident ability to target the UK mainland have held that while the groups have maintained their intent to carry out attacks, the difficulty inherent in doing so has restricted them to operating close to their own communities – something borne out by the differing sophistication of claimed attacks in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The recent murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay in March, killed after an device exploded under his van, like that of Constable Ronan Kerr, who died after bomb attached to his car was triggered outside his home in 2011, showed a high level of explosives expertise.
A number of bomb and grenade attacks on police officers responding to 999 calls, meanwhile, have shown sophisticated planning and targeting capabilities.
Dissident groups in Northern Ireland also retain access to military-grade weaponry. The attack on the Massereene barracks in March 2009 which killed two soldiers saw gunman carrying automatic weapons, and reports suggest a gunman carrying a similar weapon killed prison officer David Black in November 2012.
November of last year, meanwhile, saw a gunman carrying an AK-47 assault rifle target an unmarked police car parked in West Belfast in a well organised attack, with witnesses claiming the shooter ‘calmly picked up spent shell casings from the ground before making his escape’ in a waiting car.
In comparison, the only significant targeting of the UK mainland by dissident groups in recent years saw the New IRA, a merger of disparate factions including the Real IRA, Óglaigh na hÉireann and Republican Action against Drugs (RAAD), claim a number of crude parcel bombs which were sent to Armed Forces careers offices across the UK in early 2014.
None of the bombs exploded, and it was suggested that they would have caused only minor injuries had they been successful.
This clear disparity in capability raises the question of what has changed to see the threat level raised – and it is likely to be a combination of factors. In December 2015, the National Security Strategy stated dissident groupings had the capability to carry out one-off attacks in Great Britain, but considered Northern Ireland their priority.
New IRA comments following Adrian Ismay’s murder that the group was ‘determined to take the war to the age-old enemy of our nation’ will now have changed this assessment, while the apparent involvement of dissident figures in lethal feuding between criminal gangs in the Republic of Ireland has demonstrated a reach beyond Northern Ireland.
Any attack in Great Britain would likely mirror those seen in Northern Ireland, targeting prison staff or police officers.
Given the threat posed by Islamic State-inspired terrorism, police officers will already be on alert, but if dissident groups are able to bring their more sophisticated capabilities to bear in a mainland attack, Great Britain’s police forces will need to ensure they learn from the hard-earned experience of the PSNI.
Rupert Sutton is a fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and wrote his Master’s degree thesis on Loyalist paramilitarism.