GORDON Brown’s statement paving the way for phone-tap evidence to be used in court (subject to conditions) in England and Wales has led to criticism in Northern Ireland. Both the DUP’s Sammy Wilson and Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde have questioned why such evidence can’t be used here. Brown’s only response so far is: “This is a recommendation of the committee, in the first instance, in relation to public interest immunity certificates. That is why, for example, the use of such material could not be applied immediately to Scotland, but I will consider the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.”
The critical paragraph from the Chilcot report [pdf] states that:
public enquiries have wide-ranging powers to order disclosure, that cannot be fettered by public interest immunity, which would need to be considered. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland may also, in accordance with section 66 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, require that the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland provide him with any information in his possession, regardless of its nature or potential sensitivity. While the Police Ombudsman is confident that he has appropriate measures in place to protect sensitive information, this Review will need to take due regard of these powers. Because of these particular risks, we recommend no change to the current legal regime for interception in Northern Ireland.
Those with greater knowledge of these things than me can judge whether these reasons are credible; on the face of it, I thought public inquiries could be severely limited and hidden by the new Inquiries Act, while the second reason doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of Government confidence the police watchdog.
Orde said: “I can’t think of a logical reason that would exclude Northern Ireland from that debate. I would be concerned if I was excluded.”
Perhaps, as well as protecting agents or informers, Brown doesn’t want to upset the devolution of policing and justice. Phone-tapping has, of course, been used here for years, but it looks like it will remain within the hidden realms of intelligence, and not be revealed as evidence in courts.