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.