SPECIAL BRITISH forces are to be returned to Northern Ireland to counter the growing threat from dissident republicans, it has been reported.
Members of the Special Reconnaissance regiment, skilled in undercover intelligence gathering, are being recalled from Afghanistan and Iraq in response to growing concerns about republicans opposed to the new political arrangements at Stormont.
They have been recalled following requests from the British intelligence service MI5 which has upgraded its assessment of the republican threat, BBC Northern Ireland reported last night.
MI5 said the threat posed was now “severe”, upgraded from their previous estimate of the dissident capacity which was described as “substantial”.
Alarm grew following last month’s attempted car bombing of a British army target in Co Down which caused a security alert outside the town of Castlewellan for five days.
It is thought republican bombers were intent on targeting Ballykinlar army base using a 140kg bomb. The car containing the device was abandoned along an isolated road just outside Castlewellan near a primary school.
The levels of sophistication and planning involved alarmed security sources. Dissident activity has been disrupted by both the PSNI and the Garda, but concern has been growing that the various republican groups, which lack a coherent command structure were becoming better co-ordinated.
PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde said yesterday the current level of threat from dissident republican groups is the highest since he took over the leadership of the police seven years ago.
He told the policing board that “the small number of determined criminals who masquerade under the heading of dissident republicans” would not, however, succeed in dragging Northern Ireland “backwards”.
He would not be drawn on claims made by Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin that MI5 was “talking threats up”.
However, he said: “Currently, I think the threat is high. But you will not see a change in style of policing because our policing style is already commensurate to the threat as we perceive it.”
Co-operation with the Garda against the dissident threat was “superb,” Sir Hugh added. He said police officers were still on duty in Northern Ireland who might have been killed had it not been for strong working relationships with the Garda.
The SDLP asked last night who was running policing and security in Northern Ireland.
Alex Attwood, a West Belfast Assembly member, said the report confirmed that MI5 was making security decisions without oversight by the new democratic institutions.
Sinn Féin policing board member Alex Maskey said: “It’s nonsense in my opinion.” He said there must be no return to “the bad old days of political policing”.
While not diminishing the threat posed, Mr Maskey said dissident groups “continue to fragment and there has been no increase in public support for them”.
Sir Hugh pointed to recent incidents in counties Fermanagh and Down which illustrated the upsurge in terrorist activities targeting PSNI officers. Attacks of this nature, he said, were behind the increase in the number of Section 44 “stop and search” interventions.
He added that from 2,488 “stop and search” interventions between October and December 2008, only seven complaints were lodged with the Police Ombudsman, and these would be given a complete and independent investigation.
Alex Maskey questioned the “disparity of figures” between different areas, citing south and east Belfast in particular as having a high “stop and search” incidence.