THE British government is being forced to rebuild its counterterrorism network in Northern Ireland following the June 2 crash of a Chinook helicopter that had 25 top strategists from three key agencies aboard.
The loss, described as ``catastrophic'' by Northern Ireland's chief constable, Sir Hugh Annesley, has dealt a devastating blow to antiterrorist operations in the province and in mainland Britain.
A member of Sir Hugh's staff said the crash had ``inflicted more damage than anything the Irish Republican Army has been able to do'' in the last 25 years, but Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary of state, has ruled out sabotage.
The task of replacing the people killed aboard the helicopter has already begun, Sir Patrick said. One option the government may decide to take, security sources say, is the appointment of a leader to oversee all counterterrorism operations in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. This would help to fill the void created by the Chinook crash.
The battle against violence in Northern Ireland is waged largely with the help of intelligence information. Antiterrorist strategists operate with the help of informers, who supply details of terrorist operations. Many of the operatives aboard the downed helicopter possessed information essential to waging a coordinated campaign against the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups. They were skilled in sifting information, determining its veracity, and deciding how to make best use of it. Vital records containing details of terrorism and measures to combat it were aboard the Chinook, reports said.
``What has been lost is the accumulated experience to make use of information that the intelligence agencies receive,'' a British Parliamentary source said.
A senior source in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland's police force), which had 10 members of its Special Branch aboard, said: ``Ten men with 20 year's experience each, is 200 years of knowledge lost.''
In London, there is concern at Scotland Yard that the loss of so many counterterrorism specialists will undermine attempts to contain IRA attacks on the British mainland.
The disaster has raised the question of why so many key antiterrorist personnel were aboard the same aircraft. Sir Patrick has ordered an inquiry.
Prime Minister John Major is reported to be embarrassed by the circumstances of the helicopter crash. The machine had no black box flight recorder or all-weather radar, and had apparently taken off in heavy fog. It was flying from Northern Ireland across the sea and crashed into a rock face on the Scottish coast.
Sir Hugh says the group on board were traveling to attend a ``routine conference'' on counterterrorism measures. It is ``standard procedure'' for numbers of counterterrorism specialists to travel in a single aircraft, Sir Patrick says.
The agencies with officers on the Chinook were the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and MI5 (the British secret service, which has a large contingent in the province).