N. Ireland Attacks Part of Broader Pattern
By Joseph Fitsanakis* | intelNews | 03.10.2009
NORTHERN IRISH POLITICS ENTERED A new phase after the recent wave of strikes by dissident republicans against British military and police targets in the North, which have so far left three people dead and at least two seriously injured. Yet the attacks, which have been attributed to Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) paramilitaries, were hardly unexpected; on the contrary, they are part of a broader pattern of intensification of covert military and paramilitary activity in the troubled region.
On Saturday, March 7, two unarmed British soldiers were executed and two others seriously injured when three RIRA guerillas opened fire on them with semi-automatic weapons outside the British Army’s Massereene Barracks in Antrim town. The guerillas also injured two delivery men -both Catholic- who were delivering pizzas to the soldiers at the time of the attack. A subsequent RIRA statement dryly described them as “British collaborators” who routinely supply services to British occupation forces in the North. Two nights later, a police officer was shot and killed in Craigavon, County Armagh, as he investigated reports of “suspicious activity” in the area.
STARING INTO THE ABYSS
There is no doubt that both attacks have seriously inflamed Northern Irish politics, and that the Northern Irish reconciliation process is facing its most acute crisis in recent years. On Sunday, loyalist community leaders, many of them former members of unionist paramilitary groups, urged “those who may be angry within the unionist community [...] not to retaliate” in kind, expressing fears over the possibility of a spiraling effect of the RIRA shootings across Catholic and Protestant communities in the North. Following Tuesday’s shooting of a police officer in County Armagh, Dolores Kelly, a parliamentary member for the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), warned that Northern Ireland was “staring into the abyss” and was “on the brink of something absolutely awful”.
THE BROADER PATTERN
Yet, far from being isolated incidents, the RIRA attacks described above are the latest expressions of a broader trend of intensification of paramilitary activities by all sides involved in the in the Northern Irish conflict. Many in the republican community, including Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, have described the RIRA attacks as violent responses to recent official confirmations of the return of British special forces to Northern Ireland for the first time in nearly a decade. The impending arrival of these troops, which is said to have “inflamed [...] republican sensitivities”, will significantly increase British military presence in Northern Ireland, from a historic low of 5,000 in late 2005, after the Provisional IRA announced the end of its armed campaign.
More importantly, the redeployment of British special forces in Northern Ireland is widely viewed as an executive decision to remove law enforcement operations in the North from the control of the region’s political parties, which was the original understanding in the 1998 power-sharing agreement. These forces consist primarily of Special Reconnaissance Regiment personnel specializing in “surveillance and intelligence gathering” through a variety of signals intelligence (SIGINT) methods. Such undercover surveillance forces, which are believed to include several officers on loan from MI5, Britain’s foremost counterintelligence organization, are reportedly tasked with “mount[ing] round-the-clock surveillance on suspected dissident republicans”.
A DARK HISTORY
The problem is inherently political, insofar as these undercover groups are seen by many republicans as “unaccountable and nondescript special forces” who carry with them a dark history of illegal collaboration with loyalist paramilitary death squads. In fact the Special Reconnaissance Regiment is currently believed to be headed by Brigadier Gordon Kerr, who in the 1990s tried unsuccessfully to exculpate British intelligence operative Brian Nelson during the latter’s court case. Nelson represented the central operational link between the British intelligence services and Northern Ireland’s loyalist paramilitaries in the 1970s and 1980s.
Traditionally, British military reconnaissance forces have provided technical support to MI5 officers stationed in Northern Ireland, 150 of whom are still believed to be active today throughout the region. This is what Sinn Féin’s Adams was alluding to when he responded to the March 7 RIRA attack by saying: “[y]ou do not understand the history if you do not understand that the involvement of those units in the past, totally unaccountable, has led to the same kind of suffering as that unfortunately being endured at this time by the families of those two British soldiers who were killed”.
In fact, nearly 24 hours prior to last Saturday’s RIRA attack, officials of both SDLP and Sinn Féin met with Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in an attempt to convince him to review the decision to deploy dozens of British surveillance troops in the region. Both parties described the impending deployment as effectively undermining the Policing Board arrangement agreed during the early stages of the reconciliation process. Following the first RIRA attack, Gerry Adams made sure to remind the Chief Constable that he had “made a huge mistake bringing in undercover British army units”. He went on to condemn both the reckless RIRA attack and the ongoing intensification of British overt and covert military presence in Northern Ireland, noting that the latter “plays into hands of those who carried this attack. They almost need each other”, he added.
THE MOST SERIOUS THREAT
The recent dissident republican attacks in the North are reprehensible and severely reckless. But they are by themselves unlikely to destabilize the ongoing reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. Experienced observers correctly note that, under current conditions on the ground, dissident republican groups are politically and tactically isolated. Republican splinter groups such as the RIRA are not only “tiny”; they also lack “the capacity to maintain a serious and sustained campaign”. Northern Irish law enforcement officials concur and add that republican splinter groups “lack public support, they lack finance, they lack personnel and they lack munitions and equipment. What they can do is sporadic murder and sporadic bombing attacks and, in their terms, be successful at that”.
Much more threatening to the reconciliation process are thoughtless and potentially catastrophic tactical moves by Britain’s security establishment, such as the recent decision to redeploy military surveillance teams who carry with them a dark history of collusion with paramilitary murder squads in Northern Ireland. The sole effect of the impending increase of unaccountable British security presence in the North will be to incense separatist and loyalist splinter groups, thus threatening to destabilize the entire reconciliation process.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that, broadly speaking, the sides involved in the Northern Ireland peace process are not two (unionists and republicans). Rather, they are three: unionists, republicans, and the British government, including its law enforcement, military and security components. Several years ago, Northern Ireland’s unionist and republican communities overwhelmingly decided to put their considerable military arsenals aside in the interests of long-term peace. It is now time for the British government to do the same.
* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.