Half of the people who live in these islands have no adult memory at all of the Northern Ireland troubles. Too many of those who can remember them have allowed the bombings, shootings, riots and violence to slip from their minds in the 25 years that have passed since a peace treaty was signed in 1998. But last week’s data leak by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) ought to be a wake-up call for the forgetful, and a lightbulb moment for the unaware.
Nine days ago, in response to a freedom of information request whose provenance remains unclear, someone in the PSNI mistakenly put the names, initials, ranks, place of work and departments of all of its 10,000 officers and staff online for about three hours before they were removed. Especially in a profession where police and their families were, and sometimes still are, regular targets, it was a spectacular security breach, even in these more peaceful times.
Then, on Monday, the full impact and the seriousness became clearer. Four documents from the leak, with names blocked out, were pasted to a Falls Road wall in west Belfast near a Sinn Féin office. Posted on the wall above them was a taunt directed at the veteran republican Gerry Kelly, convicted of the IRA’s Old Bailey bombings in London in 1973 but, for the past 30 years, a familiar Sinn Féin pillar of the peace process who now sits on the Northern Ireland policing board. The A4 piece of paper said: “Gerry, We know who Your mates Are.”
The how and why of the original leak raise deep questions. So do the how and why of Monday’s wall postings, apparently confirming that the data is in dissident republican hands. Puzzling out the answers will have occupied investigators not just in the PSNI but in MI5 – and Sinn Féin – from the moment the leak occurred.
The London and Dublin governments will be receiving detailed daily updates at the highest level. Central to these will be a judgment about whether the dissidents are capable, now that they armed with such priceless intelligence, of launching the kind of campaigns that the IRA waged during the Troubles. It is too soon to say if Wednesday’s PSNI arrest in Lurgan of a man suspected of collecting information of value to terrorists represents a key breakthrough. In the meantime, the rest of us should be very clear about two things. The police names and other details appear now to be in the possession of people who, if they can, will terrorise and kill some of those on the lists. At a stroke, it turns what, until last week, was only a dangerous possibility into something with potential, if it is not nipped in the bud. It may also be a recruiting officer for terrorists.
The leak is a lurching event for the whole of Northern Ireland. That’s particularly true for those on the lists from Catholic backgrounds, some of whom are already rethinking their careers and lives in the PSNI. But in Northern Ireland’s tentative and incomplete post-Troubles cohesion, the consequences may ricochet in several other directions. Mishandled any further, this leak could begin to undermine multiple aspects of ordinary life, as well as affecting the bedrock issues of jobs, the economy and politics.
That places even more responsibility on the shoulders of British, Irish and, above all, Northern Ireland’s politicians to prevent that possibility. In the 1990s, democratic power-sharing proved it was the only viable alternative to the violence that had caused more than 3,500 deaths in the previous 30 years. That lesson needs to be reapplied in the 2020s as a matter of priority.
This means above all that Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions have to be reactivated. This rests principally in the hands of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), which collapsed the institutions in February 2022 in its opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol in the UK’s Brexit deal.
Part of the DUP will see the PSNI crisis simply as an opportunity to press for concessions on the protocol. The party’s leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, who wants power sharing to resume, has this opportunity to draw the opposite conclusion. The PSNI crisis could be the moment to renew the peace process and rally around it. If Donaldson has an inner David Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist official Alex Kane suggested this week, this is his moment.
If Donaldson has a motive to turn threat into opportunity, then so does Rishi Sunak. Restoring the Northern Ireland institutions may not have huge electoral resonance across Britain. But Sunak needs a win, and this one really matters. The UK government has a looming Northern Ireland investment conference on 12 September. Sunak will have it in his diary. It will have far more energy if power sharing has been restored than if things continue to drift.
Somewhere in Whitehall, perhaps even in No 10 itself, there must be a copy of a book called Lost Lives. First published in 1999, updated in 2004, and now almost impossible to acquire, Lost Lives is a monumental and dispassionate litany. It enumerates each death of the Troubles, whoever the victim and whatever the circumstances. Like the more recent The Dead of the Irish Revolution, covering 1916 to 1921, it is a detailed roll call of the perished, not a narrative. A copy should be found for Sunak.
For Lost Lives to be out of print is a scandal. But that fact is also a metaphor. The seriousness of what is at stake in the aftermath of the PSNI leak is profound. The capacity for callousness and cruelty that marked the Troubles seems to be slipping out of memory. But history can never be confined to the books.