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Northern Ireland – Terror Threat Troubles

MI5 has claimed that an attack is “highly likely” in Northern Ireland, raising the terror threat level from substantial to severe. As we roar towards the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the political and civil turmoil that preceded the agreement is seditiously slithering its way back into the forefront of Northern Ireland. The peace and prosperity clauses envisioned by the agreement have been cracking at the seams in recent years, from the lack of power-sharing to a rise in paramilitary attacks in local communities throughout Northern Ireland.

The change comes after DCI John Caldwell was attacked in Omagh last month, shot multiples times in front of a group of schoolchildren and his son. The targeted attack has since been accredited to the dissident republican group, the Real IRA, and marks the most severe action taken by a paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland for several years. There have been other minor instances of sectarian violence, despite the peace-seeking admonishments laid out by the Good Friday Agreement. However, the case of Mr Caldwell is indubitably the most severe occurrence of such violence since the tragic car bombing of Constable Ronan Kerr in 2011.


Terror Threat Level


Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris announced the change to the terror threat level last Tuesday. In a written statement, he divulged that the security service MI5 has deemed that a terrorist attack on Northern Ireland is a distinct possibility, describing it as being highly likely. The ability to alter the threat level is entirely controlled by MI5 through continuous monitoring and utilisation of the latest intelligence regarding terror-related threats. The official publication release from the Northern Ireland Office directly labelled last month’s attack on John Caldwell as a direct catalyst for the alteration of the threat level.

The scale that MI5 adhere to ranges from low, to moderate, followed by substantial, then to severe and concluded by critical. Northern Ireland being pinned in the severe category indicates that an attack is highly likely. There is a multitude of factors the organisation considers when reviewing the scale, which includes available intelligence, terrorist capability, terrorist intentions and timescales of possible attacks. The change marks the first alteration relating to the scale and Northern Ireland since 2010 when the country reverted to the ‘substantial’ category. A distant memory.

The Secretary of State urged that “The public should remain vigilant, but not be alarmed.” Whilst not with the intention to ignite fear within the public sphere, it certainly does little to appease the already palpable unease that is hanging over Northern Ireland. It serves to reiterate to those familiar with the troubled history of Northern Ireland that paramilitary organisations still have a chokehold on communities.


A Relative Lull


Prior to the abhorrent attack on John Caldwell, there had been a relative lull in sectarian violence. Relative being the key word. For Northern Ireland, relative unfortunately does not inspire much cause for celebration. Being a country so intertwined with deep sectarian violence, with barbaric brutalities a common occurrence throughout the 20th century, relative to Northern Ireland is still a Kafkaesque reality.

Within our supposed period of peace since 2011, police in Derry accused the New IRA of planting a van bomb outside the Derry courthouse in 2019. The following year in 2020, MI5 oversaw a successful sting operation into the New IRA, in which they wiretapped meetings between high-level leadership members of the dissident republican group. More recently in 2022, an attempted murder inquiry was launched as a police vehicle was the target of a bomb attack for which the New IRA is believed to be responsible. Even just a few days past, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) are alleged to be at the forefront of drug feuds in North Down, resulting in petrol bomb attacks.


Peace is the Answer


Speaking after the increased terror threat level, Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly urged for the ceasing of ‘paramilitary gangs.’ He spoke on how “There is absolutely no place in our communities for armed paramilitary gangs.” Continuing by saying “It is now 25 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the people voting overwhelmingly for peace. So much has been achieved in that time.”


It is chastening to comprehend the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland. There remains a select collective of individuals whose ideologies push them towards violence as causation for change. It is an outdated and dangerous mechanism for our region. It is pertinent to remember the steps that have been taken in search of peace as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Just last year, Sinn Féin were elected majority party in the Northern Ireland Assembly which punctuates precisely that the bloody masquerades of bygone eras have no place in today’s society. The means for change can only be enacted through peaceful political participation, not by petrol bombs. Through voting, not violence. 

Edited by: Kavya Venkateshwaran

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