An MI5 sting directed at the New IRA is raising some tricky questions. The big questions are “why now?” and “what about Lyra McKee?”  And “what has a Palestinian GP from Edinburgh got to do with all this?”

Ten people were arrested in August in an operation said by police to be directed against the New IRA. Nine of them were members of the revolutionary Irish republican party Saoradh. One of them was a Palestinian doctor from Edinburgh, arrested at Heathrow airport and then taken to Belfast to be charged under terrorism legislation. His name is Issam Hijjawi Bassalat. His arrest triggered a little flurry of media speculation about supposed links between republican terrorism and Middle Eastern terrorism, helped along by the usual nameless security sources.

The operation has a name, as they do in the movies. It’s called Arbacia. Arbacia is a type of sea urchin that looks rather like the spiny-rayed sun that appears in the Saoradh logo. The police evidently want Saoradh to know that they are targeting it.  At a press conference on 24 August Chief Constable Barbara Gray said: “This investigation did not start last week and it will not end this week.” She added: “It is a longer term investigation that will look into every aspect of the activities of the New IRA in its entirety.”

In fact there have been no further arrests. Gossip from a “security source” reported in the Guardian on 12 October carries a hint of finality that was absent from earlier reports. So what has been going on?

Operation Arbacia has been notable for the acknowledged involvement of MI5. Issam Hijjawi was charged in connection with an alleged meeting of the New IRA in Omagh on 19 July. The meeting was bugged by MI5. Issam has had a slight political connection with Saoradh for several years and has spoken at the Saoradh ard fheis. His lawyer says he was entrapped by an MI5 agent called Dennis McFadden, who “pestered” him into attending what he was led to believe would be a public meeting with an “exclusively political purpose.” Claims of entrapment have also been made for other defendants.

As a result of attending the alleged  New IRA meeting, Issam has been charged with a single count of “preparatory acts of terrorism” under the Terrorism Act 2006. He says he simply gave the meeting an update and political analysis of the situation in Palestine.

His lawyer Gavin Booth has seen the transcripts of the bugged meeting. He told Channel 4 News ( 21 October):

“Everything that’s contained within the transcripts and the recordings is about Palestine, is about peaceful and democratic change. There’s nothing in the transcripts from Dr Bassalat that would support violence in any way.”

Dennis McFadden had built relationships with republican activists by arranging for  relatives to host Celtic fans travelling to Glasgow for matches. He is originally from Glasgow and appears to have worked undercover in Northern Ireland for many years.  A “security source” told the Guardian that McFadden had been an MI5 agent for more than 20 years, initially infiltrating Sinn Féin and later infiltrating dissident Republican groups. Channel 4 News revealed this week that McFadden was involved in the campaign supporting the appeal of Brendan McConville (one of the “Craigavon Two”) against his conviction for the 2009 murder of a police officer. Brendan McConville continues to insist he is innocent. He says he believes that McFadden sabotaged the appeal. MI5’s apparent role in the appeal naturally invites questions as to the role it may have played in securing the convictions of the Craigavon Two in the first place. Other questions about McFadden’s activities may also emerge as a result of his unmasking for the benefit of “Operation Arbacia”.

MI5 and its friends seem to have been content to see gossip about McFadden liberally sprinkled across the media. Presumably they thought – at least prior to the Channel 4 News report – that it  reflects well on them and less well on the organisations they infiltrated.

Why Now?

Some very obvious questions present themselves. The first is the question of timing.

Chief Constable Barbara Gray said at her press conference on 24 August: “The offences speak for themselves.” But they don’t. Charges under Britain’s terrorism laws rarely do. “Membership of a proscribed organisation” is straightforward enough. Some of the defendants are alleged to be members of the New IRA, which refers to itself in official statements as the IRA – a banned organisation. But it isn’t automatically clear what charges like “directing terrorism” and “preparatory acts of terrorism” mean. These offences can cover allegations that – at least if taken at face value – entail intended involvement in murder. They can as easily cover allegations of conduct that is essentially political.

Though the offences do not speak out loud, they nevertheless communicate something quite unmistakable. Arms were allegedly being sought. One of the Operation Arbacia defendants has been charged with conspiracy to possess explosives and conspiracy to possess ammunition. But it does not appear that any specific act of terrorist violence was being planned. Many of the charges could almost certainly have been put before a court at any point in the New IRA’s history, or for that matter in the history of the dissident republican militancy that preceded it. The architects of Operation Arbacia thought it worth exposing an infitrator of twenty years standing in order to bring these unremarkable charges. Why?

Perhaps Dennis McFadden was close to being unmasked. Or perhaps he was just keen to retire. Or perhaps the length of his service is being exaggerated to unsettle the New IRA. All this is speculation. What can be said with much more confidence is that a decision to make terrorism arrests on this scale, with MI5 in the lead, would be taken with at least an eye on the political situation and might perhaps be driven by the political situation.

The key element in this situation is that that the UK Government is empowering itself, through the Internal Market Bill, to modify or disapply elements of two of the nineteen articles of the Northern Ireland Potocol, thereby reneging on the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement in which the Protocol is embedded. The Protocol is Boris Johnson’s substitute for Theresa May’s doomed “backstop.”  It will come into effect if, as now seems virtually certain, the UK and the EU fail to agree a trade deal. Its purpose is to prevent a hard border coming into being between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by giving Northern Ireland de facto membership of the EU’s single market while being at the same time being part of the UK’s customs territory.

These arrangements have already been rejected where they ought to matter most – in the Northern Ireland Assembly. All the North’s political parties united in January, for different reasons, to refuse legislative consent for the UK Parliament’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have taken the same position, albeit with dissenting minorities. The UK Government chose to press on anyway. Its position is now complicated still further by its own rejection of parts of the Agreement that it forced upon the devolved administrations.

The Protocol is a set meal, not an à la carte menu

The powers the UK Government is now giving itself through the Internal Market Bill, even if never used, place it in breach of its agreement with the EU and risk harming its relations with other countries, either because they dislike the precedent set by the UK’s treaty violation, or because they feel a commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland. The difficulties will increase if elements of the Protocol untouched by the Internal Market Bill unravel in the course of the UK’s dispute with the the EU. The Protocol is a set meal, not an à la carte menu.

The preamble to the Protocol acknowledges “the need for this Protocol to be implemented so as to maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation, including for possible new arrangements in accordance with the 1998 Agreement.”

It is difficult to see how, having signed up to this, the UK Government can now argue that parts of the Protocol are dispensable and that North-South cooperation can continue undiminished without them.

The UK Government says that the treaty-breaking powers contained in the Internal Market Bill are intended to “protect” the Good Friday Agreement. It means that it is “protecting” the Good Friday Agreement from Unionist attack by partially dismantling it. That’s nonsense, of course. And it’s likely to be seen that way around the world. On the other hand, it has put an end to Boris Johnson’s friendlessness at Stormont.

On 22 September the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion rejecting the Internal Market Bill. The motion was backed SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party, but opposed by the DUP and Ulster Unionists. The fragile unity of the January vote against the Withdrawal Bill is over, as the UK Government needs it to be.

Sammy Wilson MP, the DUP’s Chief Whip at Westminster, had already described the treaty-breaking power as a vital tool “to help us fend off predatory behaviour from our nearest competitor.” He said that claims that the new power rips the Good Friday agreement apart were “bunkum”, but his own description of the Republic of Ireland as “predatory” suggests otherwise.

The Good Friday agreement matters a lot to US politicans. They care about the views of Irish American voters. And some of them care about the diplomatic investment the US made in the Irish peace process during the Clinton presidency. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, said on 9 September: “If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”

Joe Biden later said on twitter: “Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

What would it take to persuade the US and the wider international community that the UK is indeed protecting the Good Friday Agreement by disrespecting it? A claim that the UK is acting out of necessity, impelled by national security concerns, might do it. The UK Government has already flirted with that approach by suggesting that the new powers are needed to counter a hypothetical threat of “food blockade” by the EU. But imputing that intention to the EU isn’t a good look outside domestic Brexiteer circles. That leaves “terrorism”, a tried and trusted wild card that is rarely called out because every government would like to be able to play it.

The entrapment of Issam Hijjawi and his co-defendants has been in the pipeline at least for some months, and perhaps for rather longer. The UK’s current crisis over the Good Friday Agreement  has also been in the pipeline for some time, and became pressing in January when Stormont’s response to the Withdrawal Bill made Boris Johnson’s position barely tenable.

At around the same time as the Government was publishing its White Paper on the Internal Market, MI5 was setting up and bugging the alleged New IRA meeting that led to the charges. Within 4 weeks of the arrests, the Internal Market Bill was introduced into the House of Commons and the Government’s plan to break international law was out in the open.

There is a missing ingredient in all this. Evidence of an intended upsurge in terrorist activities by dissident republicans is unlikely to change the minds of Irish Americans who have formed their opinions across decades of conflict and relative peace. Nor is it likely to empower politicians to easily trample on the views of Irish Americans. Irish republican terrorism isn’t a threat that troubles American citizens very much. What is needed is the kind of terrorism that carries serious scare credentials internationally – Middle Eastern terrorism.

Right now, the best kind of Middle Eastern terrorism for this purpose is Hezbollah terrorism. It has a slight credibility gap, because Hezbollah does not engage in violent actions outside the region, but formidable forces are at work to bridge that gap. The US-Israel-Saudi-UAE axis that has risen from the ashes of Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” is extremely anxious to increase Hezbollah’s international isolation. Hezbollah was added to the UK’s list of proscribed organisations in February 2019. It was outlawed in Germany in April 2020 but is not banned in France and is not on the EU’s list of banned organisations.

The usual nameless UK security sources are reported in the media as saying that the New IRA are forging links with Hezbollah. They claim or imply that this is linked to attempts to obtain weapons. They avoid, as they must, explicitly linking these shenanigans to Issam Hijjawi. This is not the basis of the charge against him. Readers are left to use their imagination. It is no doubt handy to have a Middle Eastern name on the charge sheet if references to Hezbollah are to be included in the evidence against any of the defendants.

In their timing, and their rumoured relationship to Hezbollah, the charges against the Operation Arbacia defendants are uncannily similar to what any spin-doctor would have ordered. It remains to be seen whether there is any substance to them. But it is very difficult to doubt that the usefulness of the charges to Boris Johnson’s government has a great deal to with the decision to prosecute, despite the operational and legal difficulties involved.

Like so many of Boris Johnson’s plans, this ploy probably won’t work properly even on its own cynical terms. The Operation Arbacia allegations are not on anything like the scale needed to create a wave of international solidarity with the UK. Pliant domestic media outlets may very well help out, in due course, with double-page spreads about the IRA terror threat.  The arrest of some republicans may warm up Boris Johnson’s relations with the DUP. The supposed threat will provide him with a retort if pressed over his Brexit strategy by domestic opponents. But it is not likely to open many few doors internationally.

What about Lyra McKee?

“Why now?” is the biggest question to ask about the charges. But there is another question too, sharper and more emotive. It’s “what about Lyra McKee?”

Lyra McKee is a young journalist who was fatally shot on 17 April 2019 while covering a disturbance in Derry. The New IRA accepted responsibility for her murder and offered “full and sincere apologies to the partner, family and friends of Lyra McKee for her death.”

Paul McIntyre – a Republican from Derry – was charged in February with the murder, which he denies. Police say their investigation is continuing. They are clearly finding the investigation a challenging one. On the first anniversary of the murder Detective Superintendent Jason Murphy issued a statement saying: “I am still seeking the evidence to bring every single person who was involved that night to justice.”

The police will presumably want to know who supplied the weapon, what instructions were given to the gunman, who decided on them, and who passed them on.

We now know that MI5 has been infiltrating the New IRA throughout its existence. If it has no information bearing on these questions it must have been extraordinarily ineffective. Has it passed everything it knows on to the team investigating the murder?

Meanwhile, Issam Hijjawi is on remand in Maghaberry Prison, awaiting a trial that will not happen before next year, and may be delayed beyond that. His eventual trial will very likely be held under powers that allow the DPP in Northern Ireland, uniquely in the UK, to force a trial to be held without a jury – a Diplock Court in all but name.

Everything that has happened to Issam Hijjawi has happened because he is Palestinian. If he were not of Middle Eastern origin, it is very unlikely that he would have been manouevred into the postion he found himself in. If by chance he had been, it is very unlikely that he would then have been charged. If by chance he had been, it is very unlikely that he would have been refused bail. Structural racism has been at work in all these decisions.

Issam needs and deserves the support of everyone who cares about justice, everyone concerned about the anomalous security and justice arrangements still in place in Northern Ireland 22 years after the Good Friday agreement, everyone concerned about MI5’s accountability deficit and, above all, everyone who stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people in Palestine and the diaspora.

Photo: Tony Blair and Bill Clinton mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, while Bertie Ahern and George Mitchell look on. © Paul McErlane / Alamy Stock Photo