Northern Ireland was on a path to peace and prosperity until someone recently had other ideas. This post seeks to discover who is behind the current bloodshed and to determine their strategy. It asks the question ‘why now?’ and argues that the British government itself might be pulling the strings.
It was with great sadness that I read of the first security force members to be killed in Ulster since 1997. At this terrible time, my thoughts are with the grieving families and friends of the men who died. I remember when a close family member was killed there in the 1970s, and how it shattered the lives of everyone who knew him – his mother, wife, young children, brothers and sisters.
We can only hope the war-weary people of the Province keep cool heads and avoid escalating this to another pointless cycle of tit-for-tat revenge.
I say I was saddened to hear about the deaths, but I was certainly not surprised. Let me tell you why.
If Northern Ireland can stay on the path to peace, it would surely be only a matter of time before a peaceful Ulster begins to build more substantial ties with Dublin. Whether because the loyalists look over the border and see a more prosperous Ireland, or because the IRA’s American donors dried up after September 11 (1), paramilitaries from both sides have taken concrete steps to retreat from the brink. Nearly two years ago, Protestant groups declared that they were renouncing violence(2), and the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) reported six months ago that “[the Provisional IRA’s] Army Council by deliberate choice is no longer operational or functional.”(3) The IMC’s next report in November 2008 went so far as to say that the “people [in Northern Ireland] are generally confident that there will not be a return to the former troubles.” (4)
The Provisional IRA knows that peace on both sides of the border is a necessary precondition for unification to occur, a sine qua non, as it were. Given time, their plan would seem to be to wait till the two regions drift together in peaceful coexistence and prosperity. They are in no doubt whatsoever that if the killing times return the troops would be back on the streets, and Ulster’s ties to London would be re-established for another thirty years, by virtue of the troop presence alone.
The tone of British press has been predictably superficial: that the murders are the acts of “cornered animal” paramilitaries whose thuggish existence is threatened by a successful peace process.(5)
Threatened by peace after twelve years of peace? Something doesn’t add up. What on earth is driving these fringe republicans back to violence?
Things have been underway for some time. First, in a spectacularly provocative move, it was quietly arranged that MI5 would take back the counter-terrorism activities of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the bipartisan police force that succeeded the RUC as a result of Good Friday Agreement of 1998. MI5 is deeply despised by the nationalist population, and stands accused by Sinn Fein of collusion with loyalist death-squads.(6) With no official announcement, the handover occurred on October 10, 2007. Word got out that it was happening and the wisdom of the move was seriously questioned in the weeks before the handover – not only by nationalist politicians, but by the local NI Police Ombudsman and the Policing Board.(7)
As Margaret Gilmore, Senior Research Fellow at the British security think-tank Royal United Services Institute reported a year ago:
“The PSNI has been responsible for national security in the province. But on 10 October 2007, the police relinquished that responsibility, passing it instead [back] to MI5. The handover took place without any official document… That apparently innocuous yet historic document has never been published and even getting anyone to talk about the shift is extremely difficult.”(8)
She goes on to highlight a stark difference in the way MI5 would operate to its predecessors:
“MI5 is also uncompromising on the thorny issue of how much of its work will focus on republican dissidents and how much on loyalists. Security sources admit MI5 officers in Northern Ireland will focus almost exclusively on republican dissident groups that they deem a threat to national security, while they believe loyalist dissidents are more a law and order/serious crime problem, and thus should be dealt with by the police.”(9)
So MI5 took back surveillance activities of terrorist activities from the police force created by the Good Friday Agreement, but only to monitor dissident republican groups? Understandably, this caused a huge outcry of resentment among the nationalist population. Who would be protecting them? In the four and a half years up to the October 2007 handover, the civilian murder rate by loyalist paramilitary groups was almost twice that by dissident republican groups.(10) Loyalist groups still retain their arms caches to this day.(11)
Not long after the decision to redeploy MI5 was taken, the fires were stoked still further: two months later, MI5 Director General Jonathan Evans cut the ribbon on the Service’s new £20million office in Ulster, easily its biggest regional office outside its Thames House facility in London. The size of the facility caught many in Northern Ireland off guard and caused yet more alarm among local politicians.(12)
Its purpose was not immediately apparent. By February 2008, it was revealed: far more than a regional surveillance office, it would be a second headquarters for MI5, capable of relocating 400 staff in the event of a terrorist attack in London. As Jamie Doward wrote in the Observer at the time: “The opening of the base is in danger of widening rifts in Northern Ireland. (13)
Dolores Kelly of the Northern Ireland Policing board summarised the danger the new centre presented:
“We worked hard for two years to get agreement around two ground-breaking accountability mechanisms which made possible a new beginning in policing – the Policing Board and the Police Ombudsman. MI5 operates outside the control of these mechanisms and as far as the ordinary public and voters are concerned it is a law unto itself. Whose national security they are going to protect? Certainly all through our dirty war, they were curiously blind to the threat coming from the loyalist community. The British Government declared more than a decade ago that it had “no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland”, but clearly this is no longer the case given the massive spy centre they have built at Holywood.”(14)
The new facility is therefore a clear signal that Britain is renewing its strategic interest in the Province, and nationalist politicians can no longer make the case to the fringe elements of the republican paramilitaries that the peace process will lead to a united Ireland.
The change of policy had the desired result. Surveillance indicated an immediate surge in activity among dissident republican groups who actively began to recruit.(15) Several police officers were wounded in fifteen attacks in seventeen months.(16) Republican political leaders struggled desperately to calm the situation.
Meanwhile, the Catholic nationalist populations' simmering sense of betrayal was maintained and nurtured by MI5’s continuous surveillance of republican communities, while offering not one iota of protection from loyalist paramilitary groups. MI5 have been operating completely beyond the reach of any Northern Ireland government oversight(17), their very presence a violation of the Good Friday Agreement and everything it sought to achieve.
Two months ago, intelligence showed the government campaign of sustained covert nationalist provocation might finally bear fruit. An announcement was made by Evans that trouble was expected, and that the threat from dissident Irish Republican groups had “significantly increased in recent months”.(18)
To ensure the threat was consummated, the tension was ratcheted up one more notch. The masterstroke was on March 6th when, apparently to counter the imminent threat, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) were deployed, a composite unit drawing men from the SAS and other special forces regiments. This group had a fearsome reputation in Northern Ireland and would also report to MI5 command directly. Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, was forthright in his condemnation of their deployment:
"The history of the North has shown that many of these forces have been as much a danger to the community as any other group.” (19)
The rest, as they say, is history. Two days later, sappers Mark Quinsey and Cengiz Azimkar were killed at Massareene army base after stepping out to pay for a pizza delivery. The same weekend, PSNI officer Stephen Carrol was killed on night patrol in Craigavon.
This is the security background to the recent murders, the blame for which must be laid squarely at the feet of the British government. By its actions over the past 17 months, Whitehall has sent a clear message to the dissident republican paramilitaries that the Provisional IRA has been foolish to negotiate with the UK, that the peace process will not lead to a united Ireland, and that Britain is reasserting its strategic interest in the Province. The recent murders were the end result of careful planning by key people in the UK government, elected or otherwise, who by sustained incendiary measures have repeatedly poured fuel on the dying embers of Irish republican violence to incite fringe groups to attack the security services. Regardless of whether outside observers find these actions sufficiently provocative, the point is surely that the dissident paramilitaries of Northern Ireland evidently did.
And so it begins again.
Orwellian doublespeak seems to be the rhetorical device of choice. Protestant leaders have stated that “the attack vindicated the police decision to call on the army intelligence specialists” (20); while the Sunday Herald described the predictable knee-jerk reaction of the authorities:
“Police estimate there are around 300 dissident republicans intent on wrecking the Northern Irish peace process. They claim to have identified many of them and say they are moving to put them behind bars,”(21)
and the Daily Mail is openly canvassing its readers about whether the troops should be sent back to Northern Ireland to restore peace.(22)
So why now? And who is behind this?
The candidates who stand to gain the most are:
1. Hardline Ulster Unionists who believe that the peace process will lead to the reunification of Ireland.
2. An unpopular British government with low standing in the polls, needing to be seen acting with resolve in a crisis.
3. MI5 bosses facing budget reductions if Irish operations are wound down completely. As a percentage of its total budget, Irish republican counterterrorism is already down from 23% three years ago to just 17% a year ago.(23)
4. Elements of the British establishment who feel - like Jack Straw - that Britain’s seat on the UN Security Council would be jeapardised if its territory were in any way diminished.
Mr. Straw unwisely let the last cat out of the bag in 2006 when asked about Scotland. His answer was clear and unambiguous:
“A broken-up United Kingdom would not be in the interests of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but especially not England. Our voting power in the European Union would diminish. We'd slip down in the world league GDP tables. Our case for staying in the G8 would diminish and there could easily be an assault on our permanent seat in the UN Security Council.”(24)
So here we have a coincidence of interest between the party in power, its unelected leader, those who wish to maintain Britain’s structural integrity and global standing, the British security services, and the hardline element of the local loyalist population.
The strategy has clearly been to provoke dissident republican paramilitaries into violence, the goal being to recreate and sustain a level of bloodshed sufficient to justify a return of the troops to the streets in a de facto occupation.
A further goal, and I’m possibly crediting whoever is behind this with more foresight than they deserve, is to remobilise the feral ranks of Scottish Unionism, increasing the tension steadily until 2010 when a resurgent body of Unionist flag-waving bigots can sway the looming referendum on independence London’s way.
Think about it: if Scotland becomes independent, England and Wales plus Northern Ireland would be a strange beast indeed. The Province’s main cultural links lie with Ireland to the south and via Ulster’s historical, religious, linguistic and cultural connections to Scotland farther north. Of the other three nations of the United Kingdom, England would be the country farthest from Ulster, and with the least in common. Perhaps Ulster might even end up being jointly administered in friendship by an independent Scotland and Ireland together, to assuage Ulstermen’s fiery pride.
The point is this: if London loses Scotland, so too probably Ulster. But if the Troubles can be rekindled, Ulster would be held by the presence of British troops alone, while Scotland – the real prize in this great game with her oil, gas and water, and the leverage she gives to England’s world power status – might be held by a sense of ethic and religious solidarity with her beleaguered neighbour. Scotland would still be British soil, held by the “acceptable level of violence” across the North Channel in Ulster.(25)
Two birds with one stone.
Whatever the reason, the resumption of violence in Northern Ireland has become Britain’s strategy to retain the Province. Especially now that Tony Blair, so crucial in steering the Good Friday agreement through, is out of the way. Rogue forces within the British government are now free to unravel what he helped achieve. (26)
His successor Gordon Brown has himself been directly and heavily involved with current Northern Ireland policy. The Times reports:
“He taken an increased interest in the past year, with several visits to Northern Ireland. When the peace process hit trouble over policing towards the end of last year Mr Brown spent much of one week deeply involved.”(27)
But surely Britain could never afford another major troop deployment to Ulster? Isn’t the UK almost bankrupt?
Apparently so, but street patrols in Northern Ireland do not require the vast supporting infrastructure of a remote foreign war. Most of the expense would be fuel for vehicles, surveillance, and in soldiers’ wages, which are due whether the soldiers are sitting on their backsides in their barracks or patrolling the streets of Belfast. Nor would the conflict need heavy artillery or advanced weapon systems. What passes as inadequate equipment in the Middle East will do perfectly well for Northern Ireland. British troops returning from Iraq will be available just in time.
And, of course, an army’s wage bill isn’t so hard to meet when you’re printing money by the truckload, as the British government plans to do.
The British strategy is already paying dividends. A weekend poll showed that after his visit to Northern Ireland, Gordon Brown and the Labour Party have begun to climb in the polls.(28)
And this week the Belfast Telegraph reports that, after two years of cutbacks, MI5 has at last been successful in getting its budget increase approved:
“MI5 is preparing to boost spending on intelligence activities in Northern Ireland in an effort to track down a hardcore of Republican extremists committed to violence. The Security Minister, Lord West of Spithead, said the security services' budget for the province would be reassessed.”(29)
More staff have already been dispatched to the new facility.(30) Perhaps the increased budget and personnel will allow MI5 to monitor the loyalist paramilitary groups now too. They have some catching up to do. After ignoring them for so long, they will have no idea of their activities, or when or where they will strike.
Expect a great deal of violence from both sides before this fire is put out. You can be certain that whoever is behind it will do whatever it takes to keep it smouldering.
How to Stop This?
It is quite clear that the British government has done its level best to provoke this violence. It is therefore a matter of the utmost urgency that Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox demand answers from Defence Secretary John Hutton on the following:
1. Do you have any idea what MI5 has been doing in Northern Ireland for the past 17 months?
2. What and when did MI5 hear about these IRA dissident groups’ plans?
3. What security measures were taken in response?
4. What knowledge, if any, does MI5 have of the activities of Ulster's paramilitary groups?
5. What, if any, security resources have been allocated to monitor future activities of Ulster paramilitary groups?
L'Irish National Liberation Army renonce à la violence en Irlande du Nord, Le Monde, 11 October, 2009
(1) Kaya Burgess, “9/11 attacks ‘helped to secure peace in Northern Ireland’,” TimesOnline, October 18, 2008.
(2) Mary Jordan, “N. Ireland Protestant Group Vows to Renounce Violence”, Washington Post, May 4, 2007.
(3) From the Nineteenth Report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) of Northern Ireland.
IMC Report#19, © Crown Copyright 2008, Sep 3, 2008, p8
(4) The Twentieth Report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) of Northern Ireland also recommended that it was time for the complete devolution of policing and justice.
IMC Report #20, © Crown Copyright 2008, p32
(5) “Northern Ireland terrorists are like a 'cornered animal'”, claims Sir Hugh Orde,” TimesOnline (no author), March 15, 2009
(6) Jerry Adams, “No room for MI5 in the North”, November 9, 2006, http://cryptome.info/mi5-out-ni.htm
(7) Margaret Gilmore, ‘MI5 in Northern Ireland,’ Monitor, March, 2008, p7
(9) Ibid., p8. My emphasis.
(10) Between March 1, 2003 and August 31, 2007, there were 13 verified loyalist murders of civilians, versus 5 verified republican murders. None of those killed were members of the security forces.
IMC Report #20, Op. Cit., © Crown Copyright 2008, p18
(11) Dan Keenan & Gerry Moriarty, “Time running out for UDA and UVF to decommission”, Irish Times, March 16, 2009 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2009/0205/1233787117494.html
(12) Gilmore, Op. Cit., p6
(13) Jamie Doward, “MI5 plan to use Belfast bunker in emergency,” Observer, February 24, 2008.
(14) Gilmore, Op. Cit., p8
(15) IMC Report #20, Op. Cit., © Crown Copyright 2008, Nov 10, 2008, p5
(16) John F. Burns, ‘Irish Assault Raises Specter of Brutal Day,’ New York Times, March 8, 2009.
(17) The MI5 website says that “The Prime Minister is responsible for the UK intelligence machinery as a whole,” but that “The Home Secretary is regularly briefed by the Director General, who is directly accountable to him.”
MI5 is not accountable in any way to the local security structure put in place following the Good Friday Agreement.
(18) Joseph Daily, “Dissident IRA Threat on the Rise: Most people think it's all over in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately it is not,” WorldNetDaily, January 13, 2009.
(19) David Sharrock, “Row breaks out over return of Army to fight splinter IRA terrorists,” TimesOnLine, March 6, 2009. Sharrick reports: “The regiment’s expertise lies in intelligence gathering and surveillance. Special forces, including the SAS, were withdrawn from Northern Ireland after the paramilitary ceasefires in 1997.”
(20) John F. Burns, New York Times. Ibid.
(21) Chris Watt, “Petrol bombs on Ulster’s streets as police arrest five,” Sunday Herald, March 17, 2009.
(22) MailOnLine Debate: Should the Government send more troops to Northern Ireland?
(23) Gilmore, Op. Cit., p6
(24) Jack Straw, BBC Question Time, September 28 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/question_time/5388078.stm
(25) A term first used in December 1971 by Reginald Maudling, then British Home Secretary.
(26) One of the few things Tony Blair can be said to have helped achieve. As the Downing Street Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell noted, “the heroes of this story are Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and the party leaders in Northern Ireland”.”
From Max Hastings’ review of “Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland,” TimesOnLine, March 23, 2008. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article3584043.ece
(27) Michael Evans, Philip Webster and David Sharrock, “Northern Ireland shootings: MI5's response,” TimesOnLine, March 11, 2009.
(28) Reuters UK, “Brown cuts opposition opinion poll lead,” March 18, 2009.
(29) David McKittrick, “Police 'making progress' in hunt for gunmen who killed soldiers,” Belfast Telegraph, March 10, 2009.
(30) Evans, Webster and Sharrock, Op. Cit.