With G8 leaders on the way, Northern Ireland ramps up security
Amid a perceived triple threat of left-wing protestors, Islamist terrorists, and dissident republican paramilitaries, Northern Ireland is doubling its police force and preparing drones for the summit.
Dublin, Ireland — With leaders of eight of the world's richest nations set to arrive in Northern Ireland next month for the G8 summit, security services are ratcheting up in what will be the single biggest police operation in the region's history.
The summit, to be held from June 17 to 18 at the Lough Erne Resort in County Fermanagh, will be attended by some of the world's most influential political figures, including US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As such, Britain, hosting by virtue of Prime Minister David Cameron being the 2013 G8 president, is implementing a broad array of security measures.
The resort itself will be at the center of an exclusion zone of so-far undisclosed size. Only locals and vetted individuals will be allowed to come and go.
The terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland is designated "severe," meaning an attack is considered "highly likely." This is the highest current threat level in the UK, and the second-highest possible, below "imminent," but doesn't differ from the normal daily designation in Northern Ireland, where three decades of war have been followed by a decade and a half of shaky peace with intermittent outbursts of paramilitary violence and rioting.
And Northern Ireland's police force will be almost doubled, albeit temporarily, with 3,600 extra police officers drafted in from Britain. Cross-border cooperation with the Republic of Ireland's police force is also key – with the summit being held just 15 miles from the Irish border.
"People shouldn't be surprised if there are incidents," Alastair Finlay, the Police Service of Northern Ireland's assistant chief, said earlier this week.
G8 summits routinely draw significant protests, and this year's event is expected to be no different.
Protests of an anarchist and socialist composition, similar to the Occupy movement, are planned. Daniel Waldron of the No2G8 campaign, says the objective is to oppose austerity.
"We understand we won't get anywhere near them," he says, "but it says an awful lot that while we're constantly told there is no money for schools and hospitals, £30 million [$45 million] can be found to protect the likes of Vladimir Putin, who is effectively a dictator."
But with the collection of leaders present, terrorism is also a huge worry – and a particularly poignant one, given Northern Ireland's own history of terrorism during the Troubles. And after the killing of a British solider in London by two men purporting to be militant Islamists, the focus on terrorism is increased.
Indeed, with fear of attacks by dissident Irish republicans opposed to the peace process and Islamist radicals seeking to strike a blow, why hold a high-level summit there?
Margaret Gilmore of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British military think tank, says the summit is a vote of confidence for Northern Ireland as a whole, as well as for its security services. "It's amazing that Northern Ireland feels confident enough to hold the summit," she says.
But it won't be without challenges. Ms. Gilmore says movements into Northern Ireland will be watched very carefully by police and military intelligence. In addition, the domestic threat will also be considered right across Northern Ireland.
"Dissident republicans would be looking to maximize the oxygen [of publicity] of the world's press. It doesn't matter where a bomb would go off in Northern Ireland," she says, arguing the presence of international media would make even a botched attack far away from world leaders global news.
A source close to the British military, but who was not authorized to speak on the record, says a direct attack would be unlikely, but that disgruntled groups could use the attention focused on Northern Ireland to make a statement.
"While everyone is distracted by dissident republicans there may well be an Islamist cell looking to pull off a stunt," the source said. "Terrorists don't need to be part of a group. As we saw in Boston, they can be self-radicalized."
The British government's stated reasons for hosting the summit are to boost the economy and show how normalized Northern Ireland is. However, complaints from local businesses and the huge security operation belie both. Another reason may be to flag Northern Ireland as a constituent part of the United Kingdom at a time when calls for Scottish independence threaten to weaken or even break-up the union.
Phones and drones
The summit will also see significant technological tools deployed in Northern Ireland, including the police's first use of unmanned aerial drones. It is not known from whom the drones are being sourced, but with only weeks left before the summit, police have little time to learn how to operate them, leading to speculation they will be operated by the British army or a defense aeronautics contractor.
Cellular networks in the area will be shut down for the duration of the summit. The government of the Republic has announced new legislation allowing it to order rather than request networks switched off. Cell phone-triggered bombs, however, are often activated using the handset's alarm capabilities rather than via networked communication.
Gilmore says the chances are slim. "The area will be secured already. It's three weeks away; the chances of anyone getting a bomb in are next to nothing," she says.
Other measures include the deployment of military helicopters and the construction of temporary holding cells.
"There will be significant opportunities of detention, and those are features that the dissident terrorist doesn't particularly find attractive," said police assistant chief Alastair Finlay.
In a further wrinkle, President Obama has said he will visit Belfast during the summit, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton. Such a trip will raise its own security concerns.
Northern Irish police declined to confirm details of the policing operation, citing operational norms.