MI5 cannot afford to cut resources devoted to countering terrorism in Northern Ireland because of the risk of a rise in violence in the event of a hard or no-deal Brexit, parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) has warned.
The watchdog said dissident republicanism remained resilient, actively recruiting young members, and could inflame further if “border infrastructure” were to reappear along the frontier with the Republic of Ireland.
“Any infrastructure erected at the Irish border to handle customs or security checks would immediately become a target,” the cross-party committee said, “and would increase the risk of political violence in border areas.”
MI5 devoted 20% of its resources to countering terrorism in Northern Ireland in the year to March 2018 and the ISC said that “any change at this time would seem to be premature in the light of the uncertainty” posed by the looming conclusion of the Brexit trade negotiations this year.
Although most of the terrorism threat in Northern Ireland comes from dissident republicans, the ISC also said Brexit could “reignite the threat from loyalist groups that have previously held a ceasefire”.
Committee members sought reassurances from MI5 that it would be able to tackle a sudden deterioration in the security situation, although the agency’s full response was redacted. “I think we can be reasonably confident,” it began, before being cut off for security reasons.
The UK, Ireland and the EU have all said they are well aware of the security risks if the Brexit talks were to breakdown to a point where a hard border would have to be reintroduced on the island of Ireland. A final deal has yet to be reached as negotiations on a trade deal reach their critical phase.
Dissident republicanism is concentrated in four small groups, the most active of which is the New IRA, which admitted it was behind the killing of the journalist Lyra McKee, 29, who was shot dead in April 2019 while observing rioting in Derry.
Despite public revulsion over the killing, the number of attacks has been increasing from very low levels.
In 2018, only one dissident republican terrorist attack was carried out. Last year there were three successful attacks involving improvised explosive devices. One was a postal bomb sent to Heathrow airport that partially exploded. At least six others failed.
The Labour MP Kevan Jones and the SNP MP Stewart Hosie, who served on the ISC during the last parliament when the report was largely written, said: “Northern Ireland-related terrorism has not gone away. The threat requires sustained pressure, more now than ever.”
In September last year, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said he wanted to recruit 800 more officers to deal with a rise in paramilitary activity. A particular concern was the growing strength of the New IRA, which appeared to be consolidating some members from other dissident groups.
The ISC – a special committee of MPs and peers – acts as the parliamentary watchdog of Britain’s spy agencies, including MI5.