Army sends in special forces to ‘tinderbox’ Northern Ireland as violence soars
Special forces soldiers have been deployed undercover in Northern Ireland.
At least eight of the covert unit have been sent to work with MI5 for the first time in four years as protests and violence escalate.
The move follows clashes in which dozens of officers were injured as stones, petrol bombs and fireworks were hurled by gangs of youths on Belfast’s nationalist Springfield Road.
MI5 and military intelligence officials fear that the riots, which have spread across the country, could spark a return of deadly paramilitary attacks.
A Special Reconnaissance Regiment team will help co-ordinate intelligence operations and attempt to identify the ringleaders behind the violence.
A source said: “Northern Ireland is a tinderbox and has been for a while. Tensions are extremely high.
“There are elements on both the nationalist and loyalist sides who want to see British troops back on the streets but that would be a disaster.”
The covert operation comes after more than a week of violent clashes sparked by post-Brexit tensions.
On Thursday a mob was blasted with a water cannon – the first time they have been used in Northern Ireland in six years.
Loyalists have urged their communities to desist from protest activity out of respect for the Duke of Edinburgh.
But pockets of unrest continued going into the weekend. Police were attacked with missiles and a car was set on fire at Tiger’s Bay, a loyalist area in north Belfast.
Some officers had stones and bottles thrown at them, and there were reports of petrol bombs being used.
There was a heavy police presence in the area over Friday night, with reports that stones were thrown at officers in the nearby nationalist area New Lodge.
One witness said: “The worst thing I saw was a car that was stolen from a nearby street and lit on fire. Then someone drove it and jumped out allowing the car to freewheel into the police barricade.”
Nichola McKee Corner, whose journalist sister Lyra McKee was killed by the Real IRA two years ago, called for an end to the violence.
She said: “Destroying property and attacking people does not do anything to further a cause of any kind. In fact it does the opposite.”
News of the deployment comes after the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Special Forces were withdrawn from Northern Ireland in 2011 but returned in 2015 after attacks by republicans. They were withdrawn in 2017.
The threat state in Northern Ireland is “severe”, the second highest, meaning an attack by republican terrorists is “highly likely”.
The threat level in the rest of the UK is “substantial” which means an attack is likely.
The Ministry of Defence does not comment on special forces.