Debate on MI5 role continues…

THE debate over who should have control over ‘national security’ in Northern Ireland has produced a couple of odd bedfellows in the SDLP and Tories…The Conservatives look to the report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (chaired by former NI Secretary of State Paul Murphy), which, in a nutshell, said that “if MI5 had had more resources for countering international terrorism it might have thwarted the July 7 bombers”.

The Tories see the Al Qaeda threat in Great Britain as far greater than the dissident republican threat from Northern Ireland, and feel that the level of threat here doesn’t justify the time and expense. How comforting.

For slightly less selfish reasons, but equally powerless, the SDLP see the shift in security primacy leading to a departure from the accountability that Patten brought to the police. MI5 won’t, for example, meet the families of the Omagh bomb victims to discuss why it didn’t warn the police about the impending atrocity. It’s entirely possible 30 deaths could have been prevented without any need to resort to more resources, a call for which follows any big security failure as surely as night follows day. Regardless, Mark Durkan doesn’t expect an Ombudsman for spooks in a hurry.

In fact, the least opposition to MI5 taking over from the police in countering terrorism in Northern Ireland seems to have thrown together another set of unusual pairings – Sinn Fein and the Police Service.

The Chief Constable seems quite happy to offload counter-terrorism onto someone else’s shoulders. He said: “It does not make sense for a Chief Constable to be responsible for delivering policing and national security and I am the only Chief Constable who has both those responsibilities.”

He added: “In terms of making Northern Ireland safer, I see no change in our ability to deal with crime at all emanating from this shift. We will deal with law enforcement and MI5 will lead on strategy on national security.”

However, I doubt he assuaged SDLP concerns when he said: “I understand there are worries among nationalists, but there are accountability mechanisms in MI5. But in the end how transparent can you be when you are dealing with people who are a threat to the state?”

Not very I’d guess, although I can understand why the Jack Bauers amongst you might think even that’s too much.

As for Sinn Fein, after keying ‘mi5’ into their website’s search engine, I got no more than three relevant statements on the transfer of powers since last year (and no, the ebay auction of the MI5 bug doesn’t count as ‘relevant’). There are a grand total of zero references to MI5 by anyone from Sinn Fein on the Daily Ireland website. A google search was no more successful in nailing down what Sinn Fein has actually done on the issue, although a although a similar search of the SDLP website brings us around 40 relevant statements.

One recent Gerry Kelly statement said that transfer of responsibility to MI5 was “unacceptable” and SF had “raised this very serious matter with both governments over recent months and we will do so again”.

Last year, he said the move “is designed to prejudice the transfer of powers in favour of British state interests by designating matters due to be transferred, as excepted matters”. Yet you get the feeling that this ain’t going to be a dealbreaker for Sinn Fein. Maybe it’s a case of ‘better the devil you know’? If SF is really trying to oppose this legislative stamp of Westminster’s authority on Northern Ireland, it’s being untypically quiet on what might be regarded as a hugely significant issue for republicanism.

Was Denis Bradley right when he told Daily Ireland: “I will tell you this and Sinn Féin will come to this because they can’t go to any other position, no government in the world will give away its own national security.”

Peter Hain had already confirmed this thinking in the House of Commons beforehand in March: “Constitutionally, central Government have responsibility for national security, whether relating to international or domestic terrorism. We cannot and will not abdicate that responsibility. Integrating the Security Service’s lead and the police’s operational response in the way proposed will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, where the Security Service has had lead responsibility since 1992.”

For Secretary of State Hain, this is a no-brainer, obviously, as “we cannot address national security on a regional basis”. He added that “between the PSNI and the Security Service, what might have happened in the past will not happen in the future”, which must come as huge relief to anyone worried about another bomb going off in a town centre or elected government collapsing because of unaccountable intelligence failures.

I’m not really aware of how unionists view the whole thing, as they’ve been pretty quiet. They might appreciate the assertion of UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland that placing it under UK national security auspices provides, although I doubt they will want the local police service left totally out of the loop either. Sammy Wilson of the DUP is happy to believe that it means British intelligence can be kept out of republican hands – though that would require a de-blurring of the line between terrorism and crime being carried out by terrorists. I suspect unionist politicians will continue to be fairly quiescent. Maybe one or two will have viewed the post-Agreement infiltration of dissident republican groups and prevention of recent attacks favourably, and will think that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’m sure you’ll enlighten us.

  • ingram


    The role of Box in NI in the primacy role as in the remainder of the UK is a good move for ” Nationalists” and a bad move for the Loyalist community.

    This shift in control from the PSNI will enable Republicans to be controlled by a political force and not a strictly policing one.

    PSNI keep control over Loyalist Para militaries because the PSNI ( Orde) COULD NOT HAVE SOLD THAT TO HIS FOOT SOLDIERS at this moment in time. This move will stop any more Bill Lowry type high profile media move ( Stormontgate) against Sinn Fein UNLESS the Govt authorise the move.

    That said it should be remembered that Box do not like operating in a ” Hostile ” environment and lack the experiance of the other two agencies so if in the unlikely event of a major return to violence watch for a very speedy return to the old system.


  • Intelligence Insider

    Have to disagree with you on this one. Box have been operating here for a long time in conjunction with the other agencies and I’m quite sure “hostile” environments are not a new thing to operatives on the ground. It’s not as if a whole new legion of guys are just going to appear out of nowhere, I’m sure you are aware of how Box has been busy recruiting recently with especial respects to ex and current SB and Fishers.

  • ingram

    Intelligence Insider.

    We shall agree to disagree BUT please bear in mind that Box only had a handful of Handlers in the Province and tended to Handle political assets and always handled in safe areas. The majority of Pick ups/ drop offs were done by US & the Branch because they are not able to work against a well armed terrorist enemy.The majority of Box assets wer Co Handled, that is to say they piggy backed us.

    Box main role through the troubles was by applying their technical expertise ie Bugging etc and certainly not in the field of Hum Int. I grant you they have recruited a ” Few” well known individuals to compliment their ability to target the enemy BUT not to the scale they would need to fully counter the threat if and when Republicans wake up and see the reality of the situation.

    I take your point about the recruitment of experianced People , my point is they have only a handful possibly twenty/thirty of the old players and many of them are lets say getting on a bit. That said if the peace holds for two or three years, then they MAY be in a position to have re organise after passing on their experiance.

    Take care, Martin.

  • topdeckomnibus

    “What is the difference between leading on strategy and involving in tactics ?” asked the Security Service recruitment panel.

    “Ah”, replied the applicant, “Strategists sit in chateaux well behind the lines whereas tacticians have to go into the trenches”

    “And your reasons for applying to us ?” asked the panel

    “I think I have covered that one” replied applicant.

    Martin is right I think. The Security Service has to have less informed echelons to exploit and betray etc. And its MO is to convince these lower echelons they are playing premier league when in reality they are in A local works league.