Metropolitan Police Special Branch

An anti-terror division between 1883–2006

I’m always wary of covering the threat of Irish terrorism on my walks. I strongly believe that the British government carried out some very dirty tricks, both actual and in a presentation (spin) sense throughout the Troubles. But nevertheless, the threat from various Irish dissidents was real and drove many changes in our security apparatus in the early 1990s.

After the Brigton Bomb which nearly killed PM Margaret Thatcher, trouble hit a second time in 1991 when a mortar landed at Downing Street, on the back lawn, during a cabinet meeting. Had the windows not been reinforced just a few weeks earlier, many cabinet members would have been seriously injured or possibly killed. It was an incredible success for the plotters, and shook the government to its core.

Someone asked yesterday why we don’t hear so much on the news about the Metropolitan Police’s “Special Branch” which was a constant fixture throughout the 1980s. It no longer exists at all, after it was merged with the Anti-Terrorist Branch (SO13) into the all-new SO15 Counter Terrorism Command or CTC in 2006.

Incredibly, Special Branch winked into existence in 1883 (not 1983!) specifically to target Irish Republicans, when it was known as the Special Irish Branch. Many other police forces not only in the UK but across the Commonwealth went on to develop their own highly trained “Special Branch” officers.

Clearly, after the Good Friday Agreement and the gradual dismantling of the weapons and smuggling operations carried out by PIRA and other organisations, the British security response had to be reconfigured. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Special Branch had spent most of the 1990s gathering intellgence about Irish dissidents. By 2006, this was plainly a waste of money but more importantly, there were much bigger fish on the fryer.

9/11 and the ructions which followed forced MI5 to take the lead role in counter-terrorism, leaving SO15 to lead more tactical and operational measures, such as armed police response to live threats, and other matters which we can cover another day.