Concern over N.Ireland special forces reports

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland reacted angrily on Friday to a report that British army special forces were back in the province to help gather intelligence on dissident republicans.

Union flags flutter in the wind as dark clouds hang over Shankill Road in Belfast, northern Ireland September 26, 2005. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

The BBC reported on Thursday that members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, which has been at the forefront of intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, had returned to Northern Ireland.

Dolores Kelly, a member of the nationalist SDLP party and Northern Ireland’s Policing Board, said the BBC report was the first she had heard of the deployment.

“We in the SDLP are very concerned about the use of British army forces in the North without any accountability mechanisms,” Kelly told Reuters, adding that she was seeking an urgent meeting with police chiefs in Belfast.

The original BBC report, which is no longer accessible on its website, said the British agents would not be on the streets but would work behind the scenes.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman in London said: “We never comment on special forces.” A defence ministry spokesman in Northern Ireland said he wouldn’t discuss “operational issues.”

Special forces such as the SAS operated throughout the “Troubles,” when the IRA waged a guerrilla campaign against British rule in the province.

A 1998 peace deal ended 30 years of political and sectarian conflict between the IRA, which seeks a united Ireland, and pro-British Protestant groups.

But sporadic violence continues and armed republican dissidents and pro-British loyalist groups continue to be involved in paramilitary and criminal activities.

In late January, a bomb packed with 300 pounds (136.1 kg) of explosives, was defused in Castlewellan, a town around 30 miles (50 km) south of Belfast. A splinter nationalist organisation claimed responsibility.

“We are not diminishing the threat,” said Kelly. “We know that some major operations have been disrupted but we have been given to understand that they were disrupted by the good work of police surveillance.

“At no time did we ever know or dream that British army recon units were being used.”

Reporting by Carmel Crimmins and Peter Griffiths