Is violence of the past returning to Northern Ireland in 2019?
On 19 January 2019, at around 20:15 GMT, a car bomb detonated outside the Derry – Londonderry Courthouse on Bishop Street. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had received warning of the bomb minutes before via West Midlands Police, after a call was made to the Samaritans in the West Midlands. Following investigation, it was found the bomb had been left in a pizza delivery van parked on the road, which had been hijacked by two armed men in Derry at about 18:00 GMT. A group of young people walked past the vehicle shortly before the blast but no one was injured in the incident, although it has raised fears about the threat of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and the capabilities and intentions of dissident groups to carry out attacks in populated areas. Four men were arrested within a day of the attack as the PSNI responded to the incident with a number of security operations at addresses occupied by suspects. Two days after the bombing, a security alert was sparked after two vehicles were hijacked in similar incidents to the one that preceded the bombing. A hoax device was left in the back of one of the vehicles, indicating that they were carried out to frustrate efforts by police to investigate the courthouse attack.
Less than a month later, on 16 February, there was a second incident involving explosives, when a pipe bomb detonated outside a house in Craigavon, County Armagh. Although in a different location and with no evident links to the Derry car bomb, it still demonstrated the threat of explosives in Northern Ireland as a form of violence. Being detonated in a residential area suggested it had the intention of causing harm to the public but also implies it could have been a targeted attack, as the location had no political significance and did not attempt to garner attention from national media in the way the Derry bombing did.
The attack outside the Bishop Street courthouse in the centre of Northern Ireland’s second largest city served to send a strong message to politicians both in Stormont and Westminster. The use of a vehicle bomb is often indicative of a well-planned attack, with intention to cause significant destruction and make a statement to a wider audience. Detonating the bomb outside the courthouse on a Saturday evening suggests that causing disruption to its proceedings and mass casualties was not the necessarily primary objective of the bomb, but rather to symbolically target an institution that is synonymous with the grievances dissident republicans still have with British influence in the political and legal system of the country.
Figure 1: Car bomb attack outside Bishop Street Courthouse. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
Figure 2: Pipe bomb explosion close to a house in the Enniskeen area of Craigavon. Credit: Intelligence Fusion
On 29 January, a group calling itself the ‘New IRA’ claimed responsibility for the Bishop Street bombing, in a statement provided to the local Derry Journal. The declaration read: “We will continue to strike at Crown forces personnel and their imperial establishment…(w)e also caution those who collaborate with the British that they are to desist immediately as no more warnings will be given”, adding that it will “continue to strike at crown forces and personnel and their imperial establishment”. The group also stated that “all this talk of Brexit, hard borders, soft borders has no bearing on our actions and the IRA won’t be going anywhere”. This confirmed initial suspicions that a dissident republican movement was behind the attack, and reflected a hard-line nationalist ideology which ultimately rejects the Good Friday Agreement and intends to continue the conflict. A separate letter was sent to the Belfast Telegraph on 25 January from a group describing itself as “the republican movement”, featuring a photo of three men in paramilitary attire, two of them holding automatic weapons. In a similar tone to the statement made later to the Derry Journal, this letter claimed the group would “actively target Crown forces” but also warned that drug dealers and foreign criminal gangs would be “seriously dealt with”. The defiant nature displayed in both statements could be employed to gain attention and compensate for the movement’s lack of physical resources to fight a war but the act of detonating a bomb in the middle of a city serves as a reminder that they are still capable of using extreme violence.
There has been recent evidence of ‘New IRA’ members attempting to rearm, with a report on 26 January suggesting dissidents had been observed by security services visiting old arms dumps where guns and explosives had been previously left during the IRA’s ‘decommissioning’, following its disbandment over ten years ago. A republican source claimed one of the dumps is believed to be somewhere in the Markets district of central Belfast, as well as others in the border region and corroborated that the New IRA had been trying to find Official IRA dumps dating back to the 1980s. Six days later, a security operation across the border near Omeath, in the Cooley Peninsula, discovered ammunition and a mortar tube, as part of an investigation by Garda Special Detective and Emergency Response Units into dissident republican activity. It is believed that there are dozens more sites along the border where weapons have been buried by dissidents.
Figure 3: Dissident republican weapons caches in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
Figure 4: Border region where Gardaí suspect dozens of dissident weapons caches. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
Meanwhile, loyalist groups still have an active presence across Northern Ireland, largely through punishment shootings and beatings which are used a form of justice in their communities against drug-dealers and rivals, both internally and externally. These incidents are also evident in a number of Catholic areas but there have been two incidents of loyalist murders in 2019 which have highlighted the internal conflict within various Protestant groups. On 27 January, Ian Ogle, a prominent spokesman in the loyalist community was attacked by a group of people and died outside his home in Cluan Place, East Belfast. The local UVF quickly distanced themselves from the incident and condemned the attack but his family have claimed they were responsible, and the PSNI are investigating a line of enquiry that the murder was carried out by individuals who were members of east Belfast UVF.
The second murder occurred on approximately 18 February when David Murphy, a man with links to the East Antrim UVF, was found shot dead in his kitchen at home in Glenwherry, County Antrim. He has been described as ‘estranged’ from the loyalist group but there has been evidence he had been beaten up prior to his murder, which suggests it was a targeted and meaningful attack. While these acts of violence remain targeted at people with links to loyalist groups, the wider public at present is not a direct target but they demonstrate the violent nature of these organisations and their members, which always has the potential to spill over to their other activities.
Operating as, or in conjunction with, organised crime groups are how these organisations continue to fund themselves, with the trafficking of drugs and counterfeit goods. A number of police operations across the country, particularly in Belfast and the surrounding area, have targeted organised crime connected to paramilitary movements. Disrupting trafficking networks serves to undermine the financing of loyalist groups like the UVF and UDA but also ensures the public harm from counterfeit goods is reduced and commodities like cigarettes are regulated and remain subject to duty charges. This protects the interests of businesses in Northern Ireland and by reducing the power of these paramilitary movements, the law and order of Protestant communities can be in the hands of the PSNI and courts rather than vigilantes.
Figure 5: David Murphy was killed after being shot in his home in Glenwherry. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
Figure 6: Police operations targeting paramilitary trafficking operations and loyalists in Belfast area in late 2018 and early 2019. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
The number of incidents indicate that there are both dissident republican and loyalist organisations still active and capable of posing a threat in Northern Ireland but the number of paramilitary-style attacks have decreased over the past year. Between 1 February 2018 and 31 January 2019, there were 13 casualties from paramilitary style shootings, compared to 28 the year before. Paramilitary style assaults, dropped to 53 casualties compared to 71 recorded the previous year. According to police, most assaults occurred in Belfast, Antrim, Newtownabbey and the Ards and North Down areas – and were more likely to be carried out by loyalists. In addition to this, 17 bombing incidents were reported – down from 26 in the previous year.
However, between 2013 and the end of 2017, incidents involving paramilitary groups rose by 60%, clearly showing that these organisations are still are an element of life in many communities in Northern Ireland. Police and security services have become more adept at dealing with threats, with increasing numbers of security personnel being deployed in recent years to assist the PSNI with their operations against extremists. A total of 20 people were charged under the Terrorism Act in 2018, up from 11 the year before, while arrests remained at a similar level. The outcome and consequences that follow from Brexit will have an impact on the entirety of the United Kingdom, but for Northern Ireland issues could be more complex if they exacerbate social divides and disillusionment with the political system. If the economic effects have a negative influence on communities across the country or aspects of the Good Friday are infringed, as suggested by some speculation of the potential Brexit outcome, then extremist groups could be empowered in their respective areas.
Public opinion in the country in both nationalist and unionist communities remains largely against any return to violence, with the ‘No Going Back’ Peace Rally in Derry, organised by trade union Nipsa less than a week after the Bishop Street bombing, a clear example of public opposition to dissident violence. While both sides still have grievances, the political approach is still preferred by the vast majority, although it has encountered a number of difficulties in recent years. Even if violence is highly unlikely to return to the levels of the Troubles, there still remains an underlying threat from both dissident republicans and loyalist groups, and will remain a factor for many communities across Northern Ireland.
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