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In the Crosshairs: The PSNI Data Breach & the Threat of Dissident Republicanism

11 October 2023

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Introduction & Data Breach

A serious data leak from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has revealed private information about more than 10,000 of its staff. This data leak has been making headlines all across Ireland and the United Kingdom now that it has been revealed that the sensitive information has come into the hands of dissident republican groups, who are opposed to the peace process.

On the 8th August, the PSNI briefly published an excel spreadsheet in response to a freedom of information request. A member of the public had requested to know the number of officers at each different grade within the PSNI. This was published online via en excel spreadsheet on whatdotheyknow.com, however, it was quickly revealed that through hidden tabs on the spreadsheet there was information on more than 10,000 officers and civilian support staff including surnames, gender, where they were stationed and their role in the organization and even stated if they worked in more sensitive areas, such as surveillance or intelligence gathering. The information was quickly taken down from the website but by this time it had already spread like wildfire throughout WhatsApp groups and is believed to have likely gotten into the hands of dissident republican groups.

Whilst loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) are still active and involved in criminality, there is less of a risk associated with the documents falling into their hands. Traditionally, police have never been a target for loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland and there has been a long tradition of collusion between Northern Irish Police, British intelligence and loyalist paramilitary groups in order to fight what they would see as a common enemy - the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Loyalist paramilitary groups generally want to uphold and strengthen the state of Northern Ireland. The UDA and UVF pulled out of the Northern Irish peace agreement known as The Good Friday Agreement in 2021, due to issues around the potential implementation of a sea border between Ireland and mainland Britain following Brexit. Despite this, neither have resorted yet to resuming their armed campaigns. The main concern for police in relation to this data leak is dissident Republicans. 

PSNI & Dissident Republicanism

In other countries, this data breach might not be seen as a big deal. However, in Northern Ireland, a security breach of this magnitude could be potentially fatal. The terror threat in Northern Ireland was marked as severe in February of this year after the failed assassination attempt of police officer John Caldwell by The New IRA which left him with life altering injuries. This means that MI5 believe that imminent assassinations and terror attacks are likely in Northern Ireland.

25 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Northern Ireland - which ended a thirty year conflict - police have continued to be a common target for dissident republican groups who do not adhere to the peace agreement. Many people in Northern Ireland keep their employment in the police service a secret from their family, friends and neighbours for fear of retribution from their local community and from paramilitaries. It is common for PSNI officers to have elaborate backstories which they tell to their close ones rather than reveal where they truly work.

PSNI officers are the only police force in the UK that are armed and where officers bring a personal protection weapon home with them after work. It has been revealed that since this data leak there are civilian staff of the PSNI now applying for personal protection weapons.

The most at risk people from this leak are believed to be those who work in MI5's headquarters in Hollywood, Northern Ireland. MI5 in Northern Ireland mainly focus on dissident republican groups, which means it is believed those working with them could be potential targets. PSNI officers who are living in republican areas are also believed to be at risk, though people's addresses were not included in the data leak. Groups like the IRA still exert a lot of power and influence in many communities across the country and in a country with a population of less than two million it would not be hard for dissidents to narrow down the exact identities of people mentioned in the leaked files.

 

Another smaller dissident republican group called Arm Na Poblachta, founded in 2017, announced in a statement last March that they view police as legitimate targets. The group had a failed bombing attempt of a police car in March 2022. The bomb was faulty and did not explode.

PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne had returned from a holiday in order to deal with the issue and has stated that the leak was a “human error” made by a junior member of staff and that no resignations are expected over the issue, though it is serious. He has apologized for the breach and the PSNI has begun work to assess how high individual threat levels are. In a statement to the press, Mr Byrne said the list will be used to “generate fear and uncertainty as well as intimidating or targeting officers and staff".

Many officers will have to be moved around and there has even been reports that some have already fled Northern Ireland since the breach came out. This is the third but most serious data breach by the PSNI in the space of a few months. In January, a PSNI officer's laptop was stolen from his car. This laptop also contained sensitive personal information about a number of officers. The PSNI came under criticism after it was revealed they did not inform the affected officers until a month after the laptop was stolen.

The exact severity and consequences of this leak remain to be seen. The PSNI are expected to have to pay out millions of pounds in compensation to people whose safety is now at risk. The head of an organization representing catholic PSNI officers has urged some of them to “bring guns with them to Mass”.

The Link to Dissident Republicanism

Dissident Republicans proved they had access to the leaked information when they posted flyers on the wall of a library in Belfast on the 14th of August which contained some of the information that was released. Sinn Fein's policing spokesperson, Gerry Kelly, described this as “sinister” and added “I look upon this as a threat by dissidents to me and I will not be intimidated.”

A 39 year old man was arrested on the 17th August on suspicion of collecting and distributing the information from the leaked document. The arrest was made by detectives "investigating criminality linked to last week's Freedom of Information data breach". Another man, Christopher O’Kane, has already been brought up in court on terrorism charges related to handling of the data. The police raided the home of Mr O’Kane on the 21st of August, where they allegedly found a print out of the spreadsheet with certain parts highlighted, as well as two mobile phones in his bedroom, one of which allegedly contained photos of explosive detonators.

Despite dissident republican organizations being heavily infiltrated and damaged by informers over the last few years, these groups have shown the capabilities and willingness to continue to carry out attacks on police officers. In 2021 a bomb was placed near the car of a female PSNI officer in what was believed to be an attempt to kill her and her child.

In 2020 as a part of Operation Arbacia, The New IRA took a massive blow to its morale and resources when it was revealed that an MI5 officer had infiltrated its high command, bugged their safehouses and joined their political wing, Saoradh. Ten men ranging from mid to high ranking members of the New IRA were arrested for directing acts of terrorism.

At the time, it was widely believed that Operation Arbacia could have proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the New IRA - the most organized and dangerous dissident republican paramilitary group - and for a while it seemed like it was as the group's activities were notably diminished. In 2022, the terror threat level was lowered by M15 from “Severe” to “Substantial” for the first time in 12 years.

In late 2022, attacks began to increase again from The New IRA and the terror threat was once again marked as “severe”.

The New IRA attempted assassinations of police officers and consolidated their power over republican communities in Northern Ireland. This data breach could now be the step that empowers them to kick their violent campaign up an even further notch. Not only do they now have information that could be vital to them but their “enemy” now has a public embarrassment on their own hands akin to Operation Arbacia. 

 

At the beginning of 2023, the New IRA released a statement in which they stated that they would be rededicating themselves to using “all means” to end British rule in Northern Ireland. This data breach has come at an interesting time, given that both republican and loyalist paramilitary violence has been on the rise over the last few years. This has been accelerated by Brexit and the complications it has caused with the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain's respective borders. The timing almost could not be better from the perspective of the New IRA, as this enables them to get a morale win over the British establishment. Whatever the New IRA decides to do, or not to do, with the information they now hold is anyone's guess. Nonetheless, this data breach has compromised the reputation of the PSNI, a police organization who is trying to instil confidence in the population and assure the people that they are well equipped, organized and on top of the paramilitary threat in Northern Ireland. 

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