MI5 has increased the terror threat level in Northern Ireland from “substantial” to “severe”, meaning an attack is highly likely.
The threat level for the rest of the UK remains at “substantial”, meaning an attack is considered “likely”.
The decision was based on an MI5 intelligence assessment and comes after a rise in dissident republican activity, but it comes just weeks before US President, Joe Biden, is due to visit.
What does this mean?
Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, cited a “small number” of individuals who remain determined to use “politically motivated violence”.
Announcing the change on Tuesday, he urged the public to “remain vigilant” but “not be alarmed”.
Northern Ireland’s threat level had been lowered to substantial a year ago – the first time it had been altered since 2010.
In a written statement to MPs, Mr Heaton-Harris said MI5 had increased the threat level to the region from Northern Ireland-related terrorism independently of ministers.
“The public should remain vigilant, but not be alarmed, and continue to report any concerns they have to the Police Service of Northern Ireland,” he said.
He said that despite the success of the Good Friday Agreement “a small number of people remain determined to cause harm to our communities through acts of politically motivated violence”.
“In recent months, we have seen an increase in levels of activity relating to Northern Ireland related terrorism, which has targeted police officers serving their communities and also put at risk the lives of children and other members of the public.
“These attacks have no support, as demonstrated by the reaction to the abhorrent attempted murder of DCI Caldwell.”
What has the police said?
Simon Byrne, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said: “This is part of an ongoing process of monitoring the threat level in Northern Ireland, which is conducted by MI5. We have spoken publicly about the number of attacks that have taken place in recent months, not least the attempted murder of DCI John Caldwell on February 22.
“We will relentlessly pursue those who seek to cause harm and terrorise our communities, and attack my officers and staff, and I pay tribute to them as they continue to deliver for our communities.
“I would also like to thank the community and political leaders of Northern Ireland for their overwhelming support for the police service in recent times.”
What are the threat levels?
- Critical – an attack is expected imminently
- Severe – an attack is highly likely
- Substantial – an attack is a strong possibility
- Moderate – an attack is possible, but not likely
- Low – an attack is unlikely
The move comes after a series of incidents targeting security forces in Northern Ireland, including the attempted murder of DCI Caldwell in Omagh last month.
Caldwell, 48, who is also a father-of-one, was shot by two gunmen in February in Omagh.
He had been putting footballs into his car boot after coaching a youth training session, and remains in a critical condition in hospital.
The New IRA, which operates around Londonderry and County Tyrone, took responsibility for the shooting. They also set off a roadside bomb in County Tyrone in November as a police car drove past.
Responding to Tuesday’s announcement, Democratic Unionist Party leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said: “It is bad news for Northern Ireland when the risk of further attacks moves to likely or very likely.
“With police officers facing such a threat, now is the time for the government to provide that additional funding to ensure the PSNI has the full capacity to meet this threat.”
When is Joe Biden visiting?
President Biden is currently scheduled to visit Northern Ireland after Rishi Sunak formally invited him to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Biden, speaking after talks with Mr Sunak in San Diego, said: “It’s my intention to go to Northern Ireland and the Republic.”
Mr Sunak told the president: “I look forward to our conversations and also importantly, to invite you to Northern Ireland, which hopefully you will be able to do and so we can commemorate the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I know it’s something very special and personal to you. we’d love to have you over.”
Mr Biden said: “Twenty-five years? It seems like yesterday.”