NIO concern at Republicans 'mastery of the Internet'
BRITISH government alarm at republicanism's increasingly successful use of the internet for 'propaganda' purposes and their belated attempts to combat this are detailed in previously confidential files released today in Belfast.
The possible threat to British national security from a sophisticated Sinn Féin website was raised by the Minister of State at the Home Office David Maclean in a letter to Sir John Wheeler, the Northern Ireland Office minister on March 12, 1996.
Maclean wrote, enclosing documents from a Sinn Féin website, "Amongst the unsavoury nasties were these very professionally produced pages, apparently showing our complete [military] deployment in NI."
The material was headed: 'The British military garrison in Northern Ireland' and gave details of British military, Royal Navy, RAF and Royal Irish Regiment numbers in NI with a detailed list of Permanent Vehicle Checkpoints (PVCs) in border areas."
The junior Home Office Minister informed Wheeler: "No doubt your security people are aware of this but I thought I would draw it to Ministerial attention because it horrifies me to find such dangerous and nasty propaganda on the internet. When we add the other crimes and child pornography that the police have to deal with, the time for some control is fast approaching."
Maclean told Wheeler: "If you click on the clickable map … you will get good coloured details of all British forces in the various towns as well as helicopter bases."
Finally, he wondered whether, since the internet already had nine million American and one million British users, the British government should be putting "our own counter-propaganda on the net."
Sir John replied expressing his "horror" on March 15, 1996. He said he had tasked his officials to explore the matter.
The issue was discussed at the group’s meeting on April 3, 1996 at Stormont Castle. The meeting noted that Sinn Féin was using the internet to good advantage.
"It's entry was impressive and its presentation was good in content and style."
Indeed, members noted that the Sinn Féin newspaper, An Phoblacht could be read on the internet.
The meeting also learned that the NIO had a website but that it was essential for the government to use the internet as "a pro-active PR vehicle".
It was agreed that the RUC and military would provide material.
Among other declassified files released today are: