Northern Ireland Related Terrorism

By: Zoë Manzi

Northern Ireland Related Terrorism (NIRT) is an often-overlooked aspect of the broader terrorism landscape in the United Kingdom yet remains a persistent and uniquely challenging threat. Recent ISD research for Ofcom found that the Northern Ireland-related accounts were among the most accessible terrorism-related channels in the UK across mainstream social media platforms. Events such as the attempted murder of PSNI Detective Inspector John Caldwell, the PSNI data leak and the loyalist paramilitary threat to mobilise to violence if the Northern Ireland protocol is not cancelled, have prompted sporadic localised disturbances, intermittent acts of violence and provided fertile ground for deep-seated grievances to foment into more concrete action. The recent elevation by the UK Government of the threat level from moderate to substantial reinforces the potential challenge.

Background 

The six North-Eastern counties of Ireland (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Derry/Londonderry and Tyrone) were established as Northern Ireland, a devolved territory within the United Kingdom, with the partition of Ireland in 1921. Home to a population comprised of native, mostly Irish-speaking, Catholics and the Protestant descendants of British and Scottish settlers, the new Northern Ireland was strategically designed to support a demographic landscape that favoured Protestant communities and their staunch desire to remain politically and religiously united with the United Kingdom. Gerrymandering to manipulate electoral boundaries saw the evolution of a Unionist majority and pro-Protestant employment, voting and housing policies ensured systemic discrimination against Catholic constituencies who predominantly sought Northern Ireland’s integration into a united Ireland.

The following decades saw the grievances of the increasingly marginalised Catholic communities grow and, with the American Civil Rights movement providing inspiration, the NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association) was established in 1967.  The Association played a crucial role in advocating for the civil rights of Irish Catholics organising regular marches to protest the inequalities they faced. These demonstrations were frequently met with harsh and violent resistance from the Unionist-controlled Government and police force. Escalating tensions and clashes at Northern Ireland civil rights marches, provided the stimulus for paramilitary involvement, with main protagonists the Republican IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the Loyalist UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) respectively representing extremist factions of the Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists.

The launch of their paramilitary terrorist campaigns led to an ensuing thirty-years long ethno-nationalistic conflict commonly referred to as ‘The Troubles’, which was characterised by targeted shootings and strategic bombings, the kidnapping and torturing of informers and terrorised communities divided into sectarian areas patrolled by the United Kingdom’s military forces. This was a multi-layered, extremely bloody, armed struggle, the result of years of historical, religious and cultural resentment, ardent nationalism and political injustice.  At its core, remained the question of whether Northern Ireland’s allegiance should stand with the Protestant Unionists and the United Kingdom or be surrendered to the Irish Catholic Nationalists who fervently defended their right to self-determination and fought for the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to form a single, independent Irish state.

The signing of the Belfast Agreement, usually referred to as The Good Friday Agreement, on April 10th 1998, solidified a previously imperfect ceasefire and marked the end of three decades of violent armed struggle and the deaths of over 3,500 individuals. Key provisions of the Agreement included: the inauguration of a power-sharing Government, an arms amnesty, the release of both Loyalist and dissident Republican political prisoners, demilitarisation and the establishment of a new non-partisan police force, the PSNI. In the context of NIRT, it is also noteworthy that a consensus was established whereby a future referendum to decide the sovereignty of Northern Ireland can be instituted if a majority of citizens wish to take this issue to a vote.

Key Groups

Dissident Republicans:

Whilst the Provisional IRA (PIRA) declared a ceasefire in alignment with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a core of breakaway dissident Republican groups remain active and committed to achieving a united Ireland through armed struggle. The IRA, CIRA and the INLA are designated proscribed terrorist groups by the Government of the United Kingdom.

Continuity IRA (CIRA) previously associated with Sinn Fein and active since a split with the PIRA in 1986, it is considered to be its legitimate heir.  Perhaps the most public-facing dissident republican group in Northern Ireland, the CIRA attends funerals and participates in marches in paramilitary uniforms and is known for its use of makeshift rockets, pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. The group has been accused of making hoax calls and deliberately manufacturing riots to lure PSNI officers into areas where they can be attacked.

Figure 1: masked IRA paramilitaries fire a gun over the coffin of a former member.

The new IRA formed in 2012 and has carried out some of the most high-profile attacks in the region.  In its founding year, the group’s first act of terrorism was the shooting of PSNI prison officer and Orange Order member, David Black, as he drove to work in Lurgan; the first killing of a serving officer in twenty years. The New IRA also claimed responsibility for the ‘accidental’ shooting of journalist Lyra Mckee during a riot in Creggan in 2019.

Óglaich na hÉireann (ONH) came into existence after a split within the Real IRA in 2009. ONH is a small dissident Republican group of around fifty members known for carrying out attacks on the British Army and the PSNI. The ONH also mete out punishment shootings and beatings to former members and drug dealers and, despite officially declaring a ceasefire in 2018, the group remain active according to the UK’s domestic security service, MI5.

Arm na Poblachta (ANP) is a split-off group formed in 2017 by former members of the CIRA and ONH. Most recently, ANP has claimed responsibility for the shooting of PSNI officer, Raymond Johnston in 2018 and continues to plant IEDs (improvised explosive devices) alongside routes and close to establishments used by the PSNI and the security services.

These groups, mostly splintered from the Provisional IRA, coalesce around a common ideology: that the British are occupiers who must be expelled from the island of Ireland so that the country can be unified. Believing the Belfast Agreement to be illegitimate, their primary targets are law enforcement personnel and infrastructure which they present as symbols of occupation.

Loyalist Paramilitary Groups:

Loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland emerged in opposition to the activities of the Provisional IRA and other groups advocating for a united Ireland. Consisting of confirmed Protestants, Loyalist organisations support the continued union of Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom and are prepared to use violence to maintain this status quo.  All four groups outlined below are proscribed terrorist organisations designated so by the United Kingdom Government.

Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) 

Considered to currently have around 7,500 members, the UVF was formed in 1965 by a former British army soldier in Northern Ireland. The UVF declared their intent to violently put down Irish Republicanism and were involved in many bombings, kidnappings and assassinations targeting Catholic communities during The Troubles. Despite declaring a ceasefire in 1994, the UVF has continued a campaign of intimidation by way of organised crime, drug dealing, riot incitement and murder throughout the region. These criminal activities and burgeoning political violence meant that in 2005, the British Government announced that it no longer recognised the UVF ceasefire.

Ulster Defense Association (UDA) 

Since 1971, the UDA has used arms and violence to defend Protestant loyalist areas and defeat militant adversaries, the PIRA. With an estimated 5000 members in 2020, the UDA is the second largest Loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. As well as a determination to stamp out militant Republican activity the UDA also prescribe vigilante punishment for those who break ranks or commit illegal acts without the authority of the organisation and its leaders.

Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) 

The LVF arose as a splinter group after breaking away from the UVF due to disagreements with the terms of its ceasefire. These two rival groups have been in a long-lasting, violent and bitter feud ever since with the LVF ruling out mediation to bring this to a conclusion. The LVF has taken part in bombings and assassinations throughout its history and has been linked to the British neo-Nazi organisation Combat 18.

Red Hand Commando (RHC)

A small paramilitary group closely associated with the UVF, during The Troubles, the RHC carried out ‘no-warning bombings and drive-by shootings against Catholics civilians. Considered to be the most secretive of the loyalist paramilitary organisations the RHC has historically withstood infiltration. The group made a failed attempt to be removed from the UK’s list of proscribed organisations in 2017.

Whilst Loyalist groups have agreed to a ceasefire, Loyalist paramilitary organisations maintain visibility not only through protests and the threat of attacks but through organised crime and drug dealing. This criminal behaviour leads to fear and intimidation amongst the communities within which they operate.  Since the Brexit deal of 2016 and, specifically, the proposed Windsor Framework and accompanying new trade arrangements, there has been a resurgence of sporadic violence and escalating tensions from Loyalists. This is a community committed to their British identity, who feel wholly undermined by the new deal and abandoned by elements of the UK Government. The incubation of a series of Brexit and politically related grievances which threaten their alignment with the Union may lead to further acts of political resistance.

Affiliations:

Radical Republican political groups

Saoradh, considered to be the political arm of the new IRA and the 32 Country Sovereign Movement (founded by Bernadette Sands Mcdevitt, the sister of hunger striker Bobby Sands, and associated with the Real IRA) also reject the peace process and have been linked to violent attacks and protests, including the murder of journalist Lyra Mckee in 2019 and sending explosive devices to police offices in the UK mainland.

The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) 

The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) serves as an umbrella group representing the interests of a coalition of proscribed loyalist paramilitary groups including the UVF, the UDA and the RHC. While seeking to present a veneer of legitimacy, the LCC acts as a front group for post-ceasefire paramilitary loyalists to unify and disseminate shared grievances, including fear of demographic and political marginalisation.

Targets and tactics

Outside the activity of proscribed groups, broader sectarian hatred has been a major source of tension, often leading to violence and unrest. Historically division has been exacerbated using disinformation and propaganda to destabilise constituencies and increase mistrust. Tactics include spreading rumours, false narratives to justify actions of paramilitary groups and to delegitimise opponents, through leaflet distribution with inflammatory messaging, martyrdom narratives, the use of symbols and murals and sectarian songs and chants.

Figure 2: Posters in support of Irish Republican prisoners and against the British crown forces.

Figure 3: The mural of IRA martyr and hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Figure 4: A tribute to RHC member, Stevie McCrea murdered by Republican paramilitaries.

ISD research has shown how social media serves as a battleground for sharing and amplifying sectarian messaging. Furthermore, proscribed paramilitary groups, adept at evasion tactics, can still be found on social media platforms, where they are able to mobilise demonstrations, share propaganda and recruit new members online. As an example, Saoradh, the political party widely accepted to be the political wing of the new IRA, is banned by Facebook due to its recognised association with the terror group. However, the group has managed to circumvent this ban by operating under the name ‘Republican Revolutionary Youth’ whilst displaying the logo commonly ascribed to its youth wing, Éstigi. Paramilitary-affiliated groups also navigate platform moderation policies by framing their glorification of convicted terrorists as historical commemorations. Gerry Adams, Irish Republican militant, politician and former Sinn Fein President rallies support for a march in remembrance of the ten IRA members who died during the hunger strikes of 1981.

Figures 5 and 6: Facebook posts in memory of ‘H-Block Martyr’ Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers.

Figure 7: A Saoradh and Estiqi recruitment drive on Facebook.

Offline sectarian hate crimes are on the rise with physical attacks, bonfires and the defacement of murals and graffiti increasing.

Figure 7: A Loyalist bonfire displaying messages in protest at the proposed Northern Ireland Sea Border.

Beyond sectarian hate, we have seen increasing anti-immigrant mobilisation across the Irish border and the Irish Sea, with the founder of the far-right Irish Freedom Party, Hermann Kelly, (formerly Nigel Farage’s UKIP press secretary) joining up with Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) for a visit to Ireland for a documentary supporting the country’s anti-immigration protests. Meanwhile, Patriotic Alterative NI have used their online platforms to call for protests targeting hotels housing refugees.

Some Loyalist elements have also been associated with anti-LGBTQ+ messages, murals and graffiti. Former Britain First member and ex independent Unionist councillor in Belfast, Jolene Bunting, has been suspended from office for harassing a drag queen and describing them as a ‘child groomer’ on social media.

Playing on these divisions, in 2019 a Russian-linked disinformation campaign targeting Northern Ireland involved spreading false and harmful narratives – including false claims that the UK Defence Secretary had blamed the Real IRA for the poisoning of Sergei and Julia Skripal – via a series of fake Facebook profile pages. This campaign was designed to exacerbate existing tensions between Northern Ireland and the UK and deepen domestic divisions amongst sectarian groups.

Further reading

Ciarán O’Connor and Jacob Davey. “Slipping through the net: Exploring online support for proscribed groups in Northern Ireland”, ISD, April 2023.

National Security Intelligence Work in Northern Ireland“, UK Security Service MI5.

Keeping Safe“, Policy Service of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Office“, GOV.UK.

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This Explainer was uploaded on 15 January 2024. 

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