The British Security Service (MI5) has over 700 officers —more than 20 percent of its entire force— stationed in Northern Ireland, due to fears that the Brexit process might reignite the centuries-long sectarian conflict there. In 1922, nationalist rebels managed to dislodge Ireland from the British Empire.
But six counties in Ireland’s north remained under British dominion, and today form the British territory of Northern Ireland. Irish nationalists have for decades engaged in an unsuccessful campaign —at times peaceful and at times violent— to unite these counties with the Republic of Ireland. Following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, nationalist and British loyalist groups in Northern Ireland terminated their armed operations and entered the political arena, effectively sharing power in the British territory.
The integration of Ireland and Britain into the European Union helped in that process by effectively bringing to an end border checks between the two countries. Thus, pro-British loyalists continued to live under British rule, while nationalists have been able to cross from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic and back without restrictions, as if the two states were effectively unified.
But this open-border regime is about to change once Britain leaves the European Union in March. Many fear that the reinstated border will remind nationalist communities in the North that the island of Ireland remains partitioned and will thus reignite secessionist sentiments.
A few days ago, the London-based newspaper The Daily Mail cited an unnamed “counterterrorism source” who said that MI5, Britain’s primary counterterrorism agency, had stationed a fifth of its force in Northern Ireland. The agency is allegedly monitoring a number of dissident republican groups —a term used to describe armed groups of Irish nationalists who continue to reject the nationalist community’s majority view to endorse the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998.
One such group —which is commonly seen as the most formidable in existence today— is the self-described New Irish Republican Army. The New IRA was formed in 2012 when dissident republican cells joined another dissident nationalist group, known as the Real IRA. The new formation is particularly strong in Northern Ireland’s extreme northwest, which includes urban centers like Derry.
British security officials believe that the New IRA consists of about 40 hardcore members who are committed to an armed campaign against British rule in the North.
Nearly 50 New IRA militants are currently serving sentences in the British and Irish prison systems, while several raids of New IRA members’ residences and other properties have unearthed weaponry —including fully automatic weapons— and explosives. But the group managed to detonate a car bomb in Derry on January 19 of this year.
The bomb employed gas canisters and went off nearly 30 minutes after an unidentified man called a charity shop located nearby and issued a bomb warning. Police officers rushed to the scene and were there when the bomb exploded. There were no injuries, according to reports in local media.