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Deployment of special forces exposes Policing Board 

JM Thorn 

9 March 2009

The revelation that the PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde has requested support from 
Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) to help gather intelligence has highlighted once again the limitations of police accountability in the north.  This was clearly illustrated in the manner the information was made public.  Only hours after the Policing Board conducted its monthly question and answer session with the chief constable, in which the activities of republican groups had been raised, the local BBC evening news broke the story on the deployment of special forces.  That Hugh Orde chose not to inform the Policing Board about such a significant and politically controversial development is a clear indication that the leadership of the security forces feel no obligation towards it.  Indeed, the likely leaking of story by security sources reveals some degree of contempt. 

The deployment and the manner in which it was reported are particularly embarrassing for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, who have sold the peace process to a large extent on police reform and the creation of new policing structures.  Orde’s request for special forces support exposes the limitations of that reform.  It demonstrates publicly that the security forces in the north are not wholly accountable to local political representatives.  The SSR is not under the scrutiny or the control of the Policing Board.  Nor would would this unit of the British Army be accoutable to any future justice minister from the devolved administration at Stormont.  Like the MI5 officers based at its regional headquarters in Holywood, County Down, this unit answers only to military commanders and ministers back in London.

Predictably Sinn Fein and the SDLP registered their complaints over this.  The SDLP issued a statement claiming that the decision to deploy the unity raised “the issue of who is in control".  Martin McGuinness said army special forces were a "major threat”; that the decision to deploy them had "shaken his confidence" in the chief constable; and that he had raised the matter with Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen.  (The British and Irish governments subsequently indicated their full support for the deployment.)  However, the anger from the nationalist parties derives more from the pricking of the illusions they had built up around the Policing Board than the substance of the decision to deploy special forces.  The reality is that the Policing Board does not, never had and never will have a scrutiny role over matters, such as the activities of republican groups, that are deemed to fall within realm of “national security”.   This was set out clearly in the St Andrews Agreement that set the terms for the restoration of the Assembly and Executive, and Sinn Fein’s participation in the Policing Board. 

To a degree the deployment of special forces is largely symbolic. Despite being officially withdrawn in 1997 they never stopped operating in the north.  Indeed, there are indications that the SRR have been targeting republicans for more than two years.  Last October the Irish News revealed how a special unit was already operating against republicans.  It was reported that nine members of a special forces unit carried out surveillance on three suspects arrested in connection with a mortar bomb find near Lurgan in March 2007.  At that time the Secretary of State issued public interest immunity (PII) certificates banning the soldiers or their unit being identified.  In October 2008 the soldiers gave evidence in the subsequent trial via satellite from Afghanistan and Iraq were they were stationed.  Others units, such as the successor to the notorious Force Research Unit (Fru) which was revealed to have been involved in more than a dozen murders, also continue to operate. Now known as the Joint Support Group, is thought to have around 50 undercover soldiers in the north carrying out human intelligence operations handling informers. 

The SRR itself absorbed the 14th Intelligence Company ('The Det'), a special plainclothes surveillance unit created in 1973, specifically for operations in the north.  Though only in existence since 2005, the SSR has already been linked to a number of high profile incidents.   It has been reported that that SRR personnel were involved in the intelligence collection effort that lead to the shooting of a Brazilian man on the London underground in July 2005.  Later that that year Iraqi police arrested two SRR personnel in Basra who were acting suspiciously - it was reported that they were disguised in Arab dress and that weapons and explosives were found in their car. 

The SRR is also thought to be active in Afghanistan, assisting the SAS in seeking out Taliban leadership targets.  The fact that their presence in north has now been publicly acknowledged suggests an intensification of the crackdown on republicans.


Republicans attack British Army base in Antrim 

Following hard on the heels of the controversy over the deployment of the SRR, though probably not related directly to it, came a republican attack on a British Army base in Antrim that killed two soldiers.  This was the first British Army fatalities in the north since 1997, and the first time that republicans have inflicted military casualties.  Claims of responsibility for this attack came from both the “Real IRA” and “ONH”. 

This is latest in a growing number of attacks carried out by republicans, which have ranged from shootings to car booby trap bombs, landmines to the large 250lb-plus car bomb only last month.  There is no doubt that the level of activity of republicans is growing and that they are picking up some degree of support, particularly in the most marginalised nationalist areas.  The main reason for the growth of republican groups is the increasingly obvious failure Sinn Fein to make any advances on even the most minimal nationalist demands never mind a republican agenda. 

There is also the ongoing decay of Sinn Fein from an activist party with grassroots support to one staffed by full timers who are dependent on patronage that flows from Stormont.  In the most marginalised nationalist areas Sinn Fein are increasingly seen as corrupt and out of touch.  A particular touchstone for discontent is the issue of anti-social behaviour.  It has gotten much worse in recent years - serving to highlight both Sinn Fein’s diminishing authority and failure to improve policing.   This has provided the opportunity for republicans to build a degree of support through vigilantism.  It is this general social and political decay that has enabled republicans to build up a base to sustain a low level military campaign. 

This in no way poses a challenge to the British state, but it does put pressure on Sinn Fein as they face demands from the British and Unionists to support more repressive measures against republicans.  It the wake of the Antrim attack Sinn Fein are being urged to give their full support to the Chief Constable and his decision to deploy special forces. 

If republican groups have any form of strategy it is to provoke more a repressive response from the British state that they hope will boost their own support and further discredit Sinn Fein.  It is a variation of the old guerrilla concept than repression will inevitably provoke revolt.  However, in most cases this has proved to be an illusion.  More repression has just meant more repression and defeat.  The Republicans also have a flawed assessment the Provisional campaign – putting its failure down to the development of a political programme rather than its adherence to armed struggle.  The reality was that the armed struggle was defeated because of its own inherent limitations.  Once it was defeated the republican political programme went down with.  The critical point is that the Provisionals political defeat followed their military defeat, not the other way round as the republicans claim.  Despite their criticism of Provisional movement they have actually adopted its strategy and are bound to repeat its failure. 



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