MI5 is dealing with the growing threat of dissident republicans by increasing its number of agents in Northern Ireland by a third, according to security and military sources.
The head of MI5 revealed that his service now has to deal with “more life-threatening investigations” in Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK.
The increased threat has meant that the number of agents in the province needed has been boosted, with tightly stretched resources moved from operations against Islamist terrorists.
The escalation of violence in Northern Ireland comes at a particularly difficult time for the security and intelligence services. There has been no respite in the activities of al-Qaida and its associates. Meanwhile, the agencies face economic constraints along with other government departments.
There have been 49 bombings in Northern Ireland in the first eight months of this year, compared with 22 in the whole of 2009, and many of the devices show a new level of expertise.
Some of the materials used in the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are believed to be from stockpiles gathered in the early 90s by the Provisional IRA, including Semtex boosters which should have been destroyed under the Good Friday Agreement.
The scale of the problem was revealed by Jonathan Evans, the Director-General of MI5, who told the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee: “What was not anticipated was the way in which the situation in Northern Ireland had deteriorated. The Service had considerably more what we would call priority, that is life-threatening, investigations in Northern Ireland than we do in the rest of Great Britain.”
In response, MI5 has increased its resources in Ulster from 13% to 18%. This figure, according to Whitehall officials, may have to rise again if the security situation continues to deteriorate.
Patrick Mercer, former chairman of the Commons Sub-committee on Counter-Terrorism claimed that the dissident groups may have also obtained commercial explosives from the Balkans.
He said: “What appears to have happened is that hardline republicans who could never be brought to the negotiating table had been sitting on their hands for the last 10 years waiting for the moment to rejoin their war.”
Security officials stressed that there was no evidence that either Sinn Fein or the former Provisional IRA leadership have given any support to the dissidents.
A Whitehall source said: “In the past, PIRA may have taken punitive action against those who are doing this. But they haven't and we should be thankful for that because the last thing we want is a civil war between the nationalists on top of everything else.
“But it is the case now that those who are joining the dissidents have less fear of PIRA sanctions.”