The role of the Independent Reviewer of National Security Arrangements (IRNSA) in Northern Ireland is to monitor compliance with annex E of the St Andrews agreement, reviewing the relationship between MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in handling national security matters.
His Honour Brian Barker CBE QC, the Independent Reviewer of National Security Arrangements in Northern Ireland, has sent me his report for 2021. Due to the classification of the report, I am unable to lay a copy in the Libraries of both Houses, but I am able to provide the House with a summary of its content.
The year commemorated the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, the twentieth anniversary of the PSNI, and the appointment of the first Lady Chief Justice. More widely, this has been another entirely unpredictable twelve months. The coronavirus pandemic has continued to dominate life in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom, and developments and reactions had a significant impact on health and wellbeing, as well as on the economy and the administration of government in Northern Ireland.
Unionist parties’ continuing opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol has been a defining political theme throughout 2021. The Protocol has also constituted a significant part of the context for some paramilitary activity. The DUP contended that these unique arrangements would divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, and would also threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK. These post-Brexit trade arrangements appeared to magnify the sense of unionist disenfranchisement, partly by raising fears that Northern Ireland would be drawn closer to the orbit of the Republic, and would accelerate a move to eventual unification.
Unrest in unionist areas was apparent, and objection to the Protocol was said to be the predominant cause of sporadic violence and rioting, mainly in loyalist areas of Belfast and Londonderry in late March and early April—the worst for some years. Included were attacks on police officers and a bus, and in the result over 100 officers received injuries.
Violence resurfaced in November with the hijacking and torching of a Translink bus in Newtownards by masked men, and less than a week later another bus was boarded and burnt out in Newtownabbey. It was believed the arson was carried out by loyalists from a local faction of the Ulster Volunteer Force in an apparent protest against the Protocol, although the real effect was to harm local people and make life more difficult for local communities.
The pandemic and the strictures towards working from home continued to have a profound effect. By mid-summer the Chief Medical Officer was concerned that the health service was having to operate under severe pressure and the Northern Ireland Minister for Health called in military medical staff to assist. In early September Stormont was recalled to discuss the high level of COVID-related school absence. Many of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic were those where social-economic problems were at their greatest and often where paramilitary presence was at its strongest.
The dissident activity picture remained much as it was in 2020 and it is assessed covid restrictions limited operational activity. The threat level in Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland-related Terrorism (NIRT) remained at SEVERE, meaning an attack is highly likely.
The first attack ascribed to NIRA since the arrest of the alleged leadership during Operation Arbacia, in August 2020, took place in April. An improvised firebomb was left next to a police officer’s car outside her home in County Londonderry with the apparent intention of killing both the officer and her young daughter. Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill described the attack as “shocking and deplorable”. Arrests were made later in the year, and a number of Continuity IRA members were arrested and charged in June. Arrests were made in September in relation to the shooting of Lyra McKee.
The success of Operation Arbacia in 2020, coordinated jointly by PSNI and MI5, was widely welcomed and the resulting arrests had restricted the ability of NIRA to operate and attack at a sustained level. The reduced activity compared with previous years was apparent, although constant vigilance and pressure was still necessary. The smaller groups of identifiable dissident republicans had been involved in some activity, not touching national security, attempting to retain their public profile.
The more visible activity was in the name of loyalism, the flash point being the objection to the perceived effects of the protocol. Overall, the dial had been turned up and other issues of contention including the handling of legacy cases and the Irish language, remained just below the surface. On the positive side, the general threat picture was better, being confined to a small sector who were adept at preying on and deploying vulnerable youngsters.
The landscape continues to be complex, with participants ranging from those who use paramilitarism as a cloak for unadorned criminality to those who remain involved for political and identity reasons which reach back to the Troubles. The damage caused by paramilitary activities on communities and society as a whole is undiminished. The cross-Executive Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime Programme supports people and communities across Northern Ireland who are vulnerable to paramilitary influence and uses a public health approach to violence reduction. The Tackling Paramilitarism, Criminality and Organised Crime Programme Board, chaired by the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Political Advisory Group chaired by the Justice Minister, welcomed the increasing emphasis on a “whole of Government” approach in tackling paramilitarism, the development of multi-agency hubs, and the impact of more joined-up, inter-agency approach.
The same observational difficulties that applied in 2020 continued in that it was not possible to conform to any sort of structured plan of visits or avenues of inquiry. It was evident that the various offices and organisations of interest were all under enormous pressure, coping not just with unforeseen unpredicted events but also with illness, self-isolation and working from home, resulting in most offices being pared down to critical staff.
In the event the approach to meetings and research that I adopted in 2020 of some virtual contact where possible, was continued for much of the year. Regular communication continued nevertheless, and I was fully informed of any significant developments. It was not until November, as infection rates subsided, that a suitable opportunity arose fora visit to Belfast, and some more useful face to face personal contact was re-established.
My major update with MI5 was conducted through the secure link from Whitehall in July. Again, although any briefing and discussion on particular investigations was not practical, I was given a clear insight of both the current direction, the prevailing budgetary conditions and the interaction with PSNI. I was able to have a better understanding of the additional problems created by working in a COVID-19 restricted environment and a better picture of how MI5 had adapted to the current conditions. Necessary absences and revised practices had been challenging, but not undermining, and the policy of wider collaboration and further community initiatives continued.
Of note was the continuing development of high-level regular meetings of agency representatives with obvious advantages in mutual understanding and identifying best practice and effective integrated planning and strategic approach to tackling NIRT. Work was also continuing with broader communication and improving protocols with partners in order to be more cooperative with releasing information while maintaining essential security.
I am confident, however, that MI5 continues to maintain the strategic approach to tackling NIRT and the sharing of intelligence at as high a level as is possible. I have been kept apprised of significant events personally, and the Northern Ireland Committee on Protection at its meetings receives an instructive update at each meeting.
I was able to visit PSNi HQ in November, where I was briefed by the Chief Constable Simon Byrne, and other senior officers as to the effective co-operation achieved. They underlined the difficulty of managing and deploying a public service in an environment that was unstable and unpredictable from both the health and political standpoints. A worrying development was the spread of public disorder in a number of areas in late March and early April leading to the need for strategic and tactical command structures in order to protect communities from harm and to keep people safe. There was considerable assistance and support from community leaders and youth workers in seeking to restore calm, but the widespread and unnecessary level of violence directed towards the police was a serious concern.
Maintaining public confidence within some sections of the community remained a problem, and accusations and perceptions of “two-tier” policing remained prominent. Directing a virus-struck, depleted service that had to interact with the public in changing conditions—with regulations that were difficult to explain and liable to change—resulted in situations which attracted criticism from many sides while pleasing few. There was also the necessity of maintaining vigilance and effectiveness in the drive against organised crime and terrorism, where resilience among the dissident republican groups remained, and about a third of the organised crime groups were loyalist paramilitary organisations or had paramilitary links.
With PSNI as the public face, the response to the worrying period of disorder witnessed in parts of the Protestant, unionist, loyalist community during April was led by the Executive.
Recorded crime level in the spring was below average although antisocial activity was consistent. The absence of disorder and relative stability over the summer was encouraging. The agreement with MI5 and the management of CHIS operatives continues to be carefully monitored particularly in the light of the new power under the Covert Human Intelligence Source (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021. This power has been robustly reviewed and in no circumstances would serious crime against another person be allowed. The regular inter-agency meetings at a very senior level continued and provided a positive contribution in providing a best practice and a complimentary approach to the threat and changing landscape of operating national security during a difficult year.
The key security situation statistics during the year show there were two security-related deaths, the same number as in 2020. There were fewer bombings, shootings and paramilitary-style attacks than in 2020. There were 5 bombing incidents, compared to 18 in 2020 and 25 shootings, compared to 41. There were 36 casualties of paramilitary style assaults, compared to 26 previously. AH casualties were aged over 18. There were 14 casualties of paramilitary style shootings, compared to 15 previously, all of whom were over 18. There were 134 persons arrested under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000, compared with 76 of which 23 were subsequently charged, compared to 14 previously.
Overall, the continued development of regular meetings and exchanges at high level between the police and the security services is noticeable and commendable.
Although dissident republicans continue to pose the most significant threat to national security in Northern Ireland, successful investigations against them in 2020 lowered their operational capacity and activity into 2021. Concerted pressure directed towards them remained effective with positive results, and several plots were thwarted. Efforts by PSNI, MI5, An Garda Siochana, and the Ammunition Technical Officers meant that the overwhelming majority of the population were able to go about their daily lives untroubled by terrorism.
Despite fewer incidents, danger to serving police and prison officers doing a difficult job persists and regrettably the necessity for constant vigilance remains.
My conclusions, again restricted by difficult operational conditions, in relation to Annex E of the St Andrews are as follows:
Further to reinforce this comprehensive set of safeguards, the Government confirms that it accepts and will ensure that effect is given to the five key principles which the Chief Constable has identified as crucial to the effective operation of the new arrangements a: All Security Service intelligence relating to terrorism in Northern Ireland will be visible to the PSNI Clear evidence of continued successful collaboration. There is compliance. b: PSNI will be informed of all Security Service counter-terrorist activities relating to Northern Ireland. Regular and effective high-level meetings. There is compliance. c: Security Service intelligence will be disseminated within PSNI according to the current PSNI dissemination policy, and using police procedures. There is compliance. d: The great majority of national security CHIS in Northern Ireland will continue to be run by PSNI officers under existing handling protocols. There is compliance. e: There will be no diminution of the PSNI’s responsibility to comply with the Human Rights Act or the Policing Board’s ability to monitor said compliance. The Policing Board is under strong leadership and has an effective human rights advisor. PSNI continues to comply with the Human Rights Act.
Further to reinforce this comprehensive set of safeguards, the Government confirms that it accepts and will ensure that effect is given to the five key principles which the Chief Constable has identified as crucial to the effective operation of the new arrangements
a: All Security Service intelligence relating to terrorism in Northern Ireland will be visible to the PSNI
Clear evidence of continued successful collaboration.
There is compliance.
b: PSNI will be informed of all Security Service counter-terrorist activities relating to Northern Ireland.
Regular and effective high-level meetings.
There is compliance.
c: Security Service intelligence will be disseminated within PSNI according to the current PSNI dissemination policy, and using police procedures.
There is compliance.
d: The great majority of national security CHIS in Northern Ireland will continue to be run by PSNI officers under existing handling protocols.
There is compliance.
e: There will be no diminution of the PSNI’s responsibility to comply with the Human Rights Act or the Policing Board’s ability to monitor said compliance.
The Policing Board is under strong leadership and has an effective human rights advisor. PSNI continues to comply with the Human Rights Act.