Ulster: the road to peace: Cynicism among the security agencies

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The Independent Online
A week before the IRA rocked London's Docklands with a huge bomb, ending the last fragile ceasefire, Sir Hugh Annesley, chief constable of the RUC at the time, was asked whether the terrorists were planning to end the peace.

His answer, which must still haunt him, is indicative of the extent to which the security services were taken by surprise.

"Are they intent on doing anything to breach the ceasefire? On the intelligence patterns at the moment, the answer is no," he said. In the immediate aftermath of the Docklands bombing, MI5, which has overall responsibility for terrorist surveillance and intelligence-gathering, took the blame for failing to spot warning signs that an IRA "spectacular" was imminent.

Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorist Branch and Special Branch officers were quick to leak details of warnings they had given, but the bickering served only to highlight weaknesses in communication and command structures within the intelligence community.

Yesterday, security sources were expressing profound cynicism over the latest ceasefire and insisted that they would not let their guard down again.

During the last ceasefire, IRA cells remained active, conducting dry runs in preparation for the resumption of hostilities.

Units were monitored carrying out operations that included realistic elements of bombing runs without involving actual bombs.

Some known terrorists were found to be identifying potential targets and monitoring their movements in preparation for possible assassination attempts. Others continued to stockpile weapons and explosives.

One cell, whose members were recently sentenced to 35 years in prison, used the lull in the violence to prepare a bombing campaign aimed at destroying strategic electrical sub-stations in and around London, a move likely to have caused chaos and loss of life.

A joint MI5 and police operation caught the terrorists last July before they could plant their bombs, but officers later realised that the cell had been making timing devices and studying maps of the national grid at public libraries during the ceasefire.

That operation and another two months later, in which ten tonnes of explosives were seized, are believed to be the result of much better co-operation between the security services since the appointment of Commander John Grieve as head of the Anti-Terrorist Branch.

He took up his post shortly before the Docklands bombing - too soon before it, colleagues say, to have made a difference - and has fostered closer ties with MI5 ever since.

During the last ceasefire, there was a small drift of resources away from anti-terrorist activities within MI5 and Special Branch offices, but that will not happen this time, according to an MI5 source.

"We will not let our guard down for one moment," he said. "It is clear that the IRA carried on planning atrocities during the last ceasefire and we did what we could to monitor that. There was criticism at the time, but we felt much of that was not justified.

"However, this time, all the parties involved feel better prepared to tackle the threat posed by IRA cells on the mainland. On the evidence of the last ceasefire, IRA units in Britain may continue to carry out dry runs, stockpile weapons and identify possible targets. It is our job to ensure that they do not do those things undetected. They won't stop their work and we won't stop ours."