Security expert Dr Dave Sloggett's considers why the most peaceful G8 meeting since its inception may not be a sign of things to come:
As the leaders of the G8 flew away from their hotel retreat in Northern Ireland the Chief Constable of the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) had reasons to be quietly pleased with his organisation. On television a few hours later he rightly claimed the G8 meeting had been the most peaceful since its inception. The protests that were seen at past G8 meetings were noticeable by the absence. Those people that did protest turned out in small numbers and the kind of violence witnessed at Genoa in Italy in 2001 simply did not materialise.
Events in Genoa had set a precedent for political violence that was to follow the G8 meetings into other parts of the world, such as Rostock in Germany in 2007. Arguably the trigger for this kind of behaviour started with the protests in Seattle in 1999 at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Summit. Some of the scenes broadcast on the media during that meeting looked somewhat similar to a war zone.
The Prime Minister David Cameron was seen to have taken a risk when he suggested Northern Ireland as the venue for the G8 meeting under his chairmanship. With the threat from a disparate range of international protest groups and potential terrorist activity by dissident republicans the security backdrop to the summit had its challenges. But he deemed the potential positive outcomes to outweigh a well-managed risk. On the balance of judgement at this moment it appears to have been an inspired notion. The successful conclusion of the G8 meeting can only have positive effect on Northern Ireland’s future.
Safeguarding approach clearly worked
But that does not mean the G8 meeting was not under threat. It is just the PSNI developed an approach to safeguarding the summit that clearly worked. Importantly in order to maintain business-as-usual operations the PSNI requested the deployment of an additional 3,500 police officers from across the United Kingdom.
These were volunteers who needed to be schooled in the specific ways policing is carried out in the unique environment of Northern Ireland where police officers are always in the cross wires of dissident republicans. The importance of this was underscored on 6 June in the run up to the G8 meeting when PSNI officers attending an emergency call had two pipe bombs thrown at them as they got out of their car.
In the run up to the meeting PSNI also conducted a number of disruptive arrests of people that from various intelligence sources appeared to be involved in dissident republican activities.
On one occasion in County Tyrone police found a gun and a small quantity of ammunition. In another incident police found a pipe bomb in the village of Kells in County Antrim. A small number of events had also occurred since the start of the New Year in the local area to Loch Erne which also indicated that the meeting was a possible target.
Uncertain security environment
Away from the summit location dissident republican activity had continued its resurgence. Reporting available from open sources shows a regular pattern of pipe bombs being discovered and hoax devices being planted. In one typical incident a pipe bomb partially exploded in the garden of a house in south Belfast on 26 May.
With the summit on the horizon dissident activity was not just limited to Northern Ireland. South of the border in Eire Army bomb disposal teams had been called out 67 times in the first 3 months of the year, disabling 27 viable devices. These patterns of activity all created an uncertain security environment in which the summit was going to be held. The policing approach to protecting key world leaders was therefore going to have to be robust.
The overall cost of the security operation has been put at around £60M. Such numbers, no matter how they are constructed, are always misleading. Whilst some of the money would have had to cover additional overtime and accommodation costs some would have already been incurred even if the G8 meeting had not been held at Loch Erne. That seems a small investment when it comes to the enhanced reputation that Northern Ireland has gained from holding the summit.
Dark spot on the horizon
As the world leaders headed home however there was one dark spot on the horizon. In one of the arrests undertaken before the summit a man and his wife were detained in Londonderry. Open source reporting suggests that the initial search of their house came from intelligence gained from a previous operation that led to the discovery of four mortar bombs in March.
Explosives and a deactivated machine gun were also discovered at the address. A copy of the well-known Anarchist’s Cookbook was also reported on the couple’s computer system. In court the lawyer for the wife said that she was not involved in any way with the dissident movement.
However what is potentially more worrying is the reported discovery of twenty-two pictures of the Headquarters of the Merseyside Police on the couple’s computer system. In court the husband admitted taking the pictures but claimed he had an interest in the “building’s size”. The couple deny all of the charges that have been brought against them. The Judge hearing the preliminary arguments on the case however ruled that a prima facie case had been established by the prosecution.
Viable target for dissident republicans
This kind of activity has all the hallmarks of a reconnaissance of a potential terrorist target. The Merseyside Police Headquarters is certainly a viable target for dissident republicans. Such an attack would be an extension of the recent efforts made to attack members of the PSNI. Given its location it is relatively easily accessible from Northern Ireland and would not require the kind of logistical operation an attack in London would need.
Whilst the case against the couple has yet to be proven this discovery could herald a shift in the tactics being employed by dissident Irish republicans. Their failure to conduct any sort of operation during the G8 may lead some in political circles to write them off as a viable terrorist group. That would be unwise. One way to firmly put their activities back on the political radar horizon would be to conduct a major operation on the mainland. It is a possibility that irrespective of the outcome of this specific case that should not be dismissed.