A government Bill setting out how policing and justice powers are to be devolved, in the event of political progress, is expected to be published tomorrow.. but its looking increasingly like a Bill with lots of added extras – this report mentions in passing electricity deregulation for example. A new item reported is the Secretary of State being given the power to call a snap Assembly election – which may suit the preferred narrative of an agreed way forward between the parties being quickly endorsed by the public [except it’s not actually a referendum], but is it likely to be needed? Another element is the official transfer of responsibility for intelligence gathering to MI5.. a move that has drawn criticism by some parties The Belfast Telegraph helpfully detailed the situation as it stands -From the Belfast Telegraph feature report, which points to the report by Sir John Chilcot into the security breach at Castlereagh police station, on March 17th 2002, for the recommendation to transfer responsibility for intelligence gathering to MI5.
The Government was slow to acknowledge that the change was taking place – two years ago a House of Commons committee secretly criticised a delay in announcing the change, saying it was inhibiting plans for the transition. The Government eventually made the announcement a year ago, long after the change had been decided, and primacy will be officially turned over next year.
The reasoning for the change, according to last year’s announcement, was to provide “a consistent and coordinated response to international terrorism” across the UK.
MI5 has had the lead role in England, Scotland and Wales since 1992, so the argument is that it makes sense here. The national Government, it is said, should be responsible for national security.
There was another important but unstated effect of the announcement: it meant that by the time justice powers travel from London to Belfast, intelligence primacy will have gone the other way over the Irish Sea.
Ultimate political control will remain in London, out of the hands of local Ministers – especially, from the Government’s point of view, Sinn Fein Ministers.
Steps in that direction are expected to be taken later this week, when the Government publishes a Bill preparing for the devolution of justice. An accompanying document is expected to repeat that intelligence primacy will pass from the PSNI to MI5.
According to sources familiar with the transition, it is well under way. Police and MI5 are currently running intelligence operations on a joint basis. The PSNI officially still holds control, but MI5 has direct input in nuts and bolts like the choice of operations and the handling of agents.
The recruitment of new MI5 officers is well under way; many of them are local and some are assumed to be former Special Branch officers. It is said that a local accent and local knowledge are invaluable. In addition, according to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, MI5’s budget is being increased to deal with the expansion of its operations, although the Committee has pushed the Government to speed up that funding.