“The £20m building on the shores of Belfast Lough..”

A short article in today’s Observer points to a longer and more detailed one in the Royal United Services Institute journal Monitor – available to download [pdf file]. The topic is the new MI5 regional headquarters at Loughside, Holywood.

It is a far bigger building than the other eight regional stations MI5 has opened elsewhere in the UK. As its cost (estimated at £20 million) and size became clear in the months before it opened, many local politicians became alarmed.

Among other issues, the Monitor article points to a topical one

The one thing that has been published is a memorandum of understanding between the PSNI and MI5 setting out the ground rules. It reflects concerns over how far police will continue to get access to intelligence. The Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde argued that all intelligence relating to terrorism in Northern Ireland should continue to be visible to the police. The Security Service, knowing that cooperation with the police is vital, agreed to this and agreed to inform the police of all investigations and operations relating to Northern Ireland. But that obligation does not extend to operations relating to elsewhere in UK. Both organisations have also agreed that the majority of ‘covert human intelligence sources’ – informers – will continue to be run by police rather than MI5 officers. A memorandum of understanding on access to intelligence by other interested parties has not yet been forthcoming, however.

And, back to Loughside

MI5 has always worked in the shadows in Northern Ireland. It arrived in 1969 and while the police and military worked on intelligence at a local level, the Security Service was working on top level strategic intelligence – trying, for example, to unravel what Provisional IRA leaders were planning in the coming years. By tradition, nationalists and republicans have viewed MI5 with deep suspicion, regarding it, rightly or not, as an organisation biased against their community whilst turning a blind eye to the loyalist threat.

It has now emerged that the new building has been erected not just to run local intelligence operations, but as a second UK headquarters for MI5. Senior sources say that if there were a national emergency and the main headquarters at Thames House in London could not be used, Loughside would become a backup headquarters and operations would be transferred there, along with up to 400 key staff. The building provides surge capacity and a back-up computer system for the Security Service as a whole.

There are already human resources staff, interpreters, linguists and computer experts based at Loughside full time, working on UK-wide projects. According to one senior Whitehall source: ‘MI5 sees Loughside as part of its international counter-terrorism operations – it’s not like the other regional stations, where there are fewer people who are operationally focused on the local region. You can have foreign linguists in Northern Ireland listening live to telephone calls intercepted from anywhere in the UK. They can listen live on surveillance operations in real time in Birmingham for example, transcribe them into English and send them to analysts in London or even get them analysed on site in Loughside. You don’t actually have to be in London or Birmingham to do that.’

Both articles note the comments of Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey

Sinn Fein’s policing and justice spokesman, Alex Maskey, told Monitor: ‘I treat anything MI5 does with suspicion and our aim is to get it out of here.’

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  • Belfast Gonzo

    A pretty comprehensive round-up in the Monitor article, but disappointingly hardly a single new nugget of information. Pete blogged Newton Emerson’s article on the main point of the article almost exactly a year ago. The rest of the points have appeared here and elsewhere repeatedly.

    The only bit that didn’t go over already-covered ground was that “the Security Service has made a conscious decision to ask for full representation at many of the most controversial ongoing inquiries where intelligence is an issue – even where it was not involved at the time. It was represented for example at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, and the Inquiries into the murders of the solicitor Rosemary Nelson and of the loyalist prisoner Billy Wright. ‘MI5 has to take on the baggage as it now has responsibility for this area’, a senior Whitehall source explained: ‘MI5 is keen to have a dialogue on legacy issues even if it wasn’t involved. It wants to show a willingness to engage and discuss any recommendations’.

    Interestingly, the Wright inquiry heard from MI5 last week, a case “where it was not involved at the time”. It’s role at these various inquiries seems to be a watching brief, presumbly to ensure it can cover it’s own ass should anything pop up on the radar or – as in the Wright inquiry’s case – point a finger of blame at another arm of the State (a role possibly carried out before in the run-up to the formation of the PSNI, due to the need to emasculate Special Branch).

    The thrust of the article is that “In this ever complex and tense political environment, where suspicion is still rife, the challenge for MI5 will not be to convince the police but to convince ordinary people and the politicians who represent them – particularly on the nationalist side – that the Service can be trusted”.

    Good luck there. Though it’s maybe best these PR stunts give time for the dust to settle on the latest suspected MI5 intel failure, personified in the body of Andrew Burns found dumped on the border last week.

    If MI5 wants to “have a dialogue on legacy issues”, where is this dialogue? Surely the only way that confidence can exist in an organisation is by it being open, accountable and honest. MI5 could tell us about its past failures – and successes – to build confidence, but it doesn’t because it’s in the Catch-22 of all intel agencies; being open, accountable and honest is simply not possible.

    Perhaps the dialogue will emerge in the context of the Eames-Bradley consultation on the past, although it surely cannot be expected to be too revealing.

    And I don’t believe Maskey. Even the Sinn Fein politicians that aren’t working for MI5 didn’t do (or even say) anything to prevent the new base being set up at Palace Barracks. Goodness knows why.

  • joeCanuck

    Well, what could they do or say, Gonzo.
    They’ll just concentrate on getting their moles inside; it never was just a one way street with regard to MI5 and the IRA, or even MI5 and the KGB, who practically ran the place in the 50s if you recall.

  • nemo

    I admire your optimism re the counter intelligence capabilities of the republican movement. I doubt very much That is a notion many will take seriously for obvious reasons.

    The new building will remain largely empty from what the article suggests. Northern Ireland and its 1.7million population, less than most English cities, will be far down the agenda when allocating floor space.

  • joeCanuck

    Custodial staff, clerks etc can pick up surprising amounts of information.
    We’re talking about a government that is next to none when it comes to losing computer disks, laptops etc.
    Don’t assume that MI5 is impregnable.
    As I mentioned above, a lot of their Section desks, maybe even the top man himself perhaps, worked for the KGB.

  • Maria

    May I suggest that our friends at Information Awareness Office,a subsection of the NSA,have a large number of Irish employees.Many of these employees were and are recruited from Dublin University because of the connection to the IAO and Dublin.So accessing a few computers in London,GCHQ and Loughside should not take too long,if they havent alreay.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Two words: Treaty Port.

    Clearly the UK government understands that in the 21st century the UK’s strategic and security interests in Ireland can be served adequately by one big building in Co Down. The days when they felt the need to own the whole island, or six counties of it, are long gone. In terms of the security and strategic interests re. Ireland, the British and Irish governments are on the same page anyway. Once operational the Holywood facility will provide the UK with all the “presence” in Ireland they require. They’re positioning themselves so that they can withdraw from Ireland at fairly short notice without their strategic and security position being affected. Look out for a Guantanamo-style arrangement.

    The desire of the British government to withdraw from Ireland is now palpable.

  • Dk

    “The desire of the British government to withdraw from Ireland is now palpable.”

    It always has been! They almost managed to get shot of the place in 1914, only to be delayed by a major war, and then have the nice deal wreaked by an uprising and blackmail. Then they tried home rule to get rid of the remaining 6 counties, only for the unionists to prove unable to even manage the pretense of fair rule and then have the whole thing wreaked again by a marxist inspired uprising.

    Finally now they’re managing to shunt off as much as possible back to home rule – maybe they feel they need the intelligence (MI5) to check that nothing will wreck the disengagement this time.

  • BonarLaw

    Billy Pilgrim

    I’m sooo longing to follow up your 06:03pm post with two words of my own…

  • Quaysider

    So the MI5 building is a prelude to withdrawal?
    Why not let Britain build a few nuclear power stations here as well? Then, by your impeccable logic, they’ll be gone by next Tuesday.
    How much of SF’s voter base is this willingly delusional?

  • joeCanuck

    Ah ,go on, go on, go on..Bonarlaw.
    It’s Father Ted week.

  • elvis parker

    ‘They’re positioning themselves so that they can withdraw from Ireland at fairly short notice’
    By building there ‘reserve HQ’ here…mmmmh.?

  • eranu

    billy, is that the way you actually see reality or are you just saying all that to keep all that ‘withdrawl’ stuff alive? you seem to be ignoring the existence of northern ireland and that we are actually in the UK. so the UKs interests are our interests.
    are you just throwing out that line for old times sake?

  • Billy Pilgrim


    “By building there ‘reserve HQ’ here…mmmmh.?”

    Indeed. Hence my citing the example of Guantanamo Bay (minus Camp X Ray). Britain’s strategic and security interests wouldn’t suffer one iota if we were to see a united Ireland, minus a few acres of what would remain sovereign UK territory in Holywood. Which means that in buklding this facility in Co Down, the UK government are removing one more interested reason for maintaining control over this part of Ireland.

    Of course this doesn’t guarantee they’ll pull out, but it’s one less reason to stay.


    “So the MI5 building is a prelude to withdrawal?
    Why not let Britain build a few nuclear power stations here as well? Then, by your impeccable logic, they’ll be gone by next Tuesday.”

    It’s not necessarily a prelude to withdrawal but it is a good way of ensuring there is no security or strategic cost incurred by withdrawal. Of course NI can only leave the UK if a majority vote for it, we all agree on that, but if the British government feels its own interests in Ireland are secure, then perhaps we can look upon the nascent financial squeeze the Treasury is putting on us as the first step in a campaign of persuasion.

    As for the nuclear remark, you feel free to comfort yourself with meaningless analogies if it gives you peace of mind.

    “How much of SF’s voter base is this willingly delusional?”

    I’m not an SF voter. Your assumption that I am is, frankly, rather reactionary.


    “is that the way you actually see reality or are you just saying all that to keep all that ‘withdrawl’ stuff alive?”

    Yep, that’s the way I see it. In a chess game you manoeuvre your pieces into position so that when the time comes to make a serious gambit, everything is already in place. I know there are a lot of serious chess players in Whitehall.

    “You seem to be ignoring the existence of northern ireland and that we are actually in the UK.”

    On the contary, my cognizance of these facts could scarcely be more acute.

    “…so the UKs interests are our interests.”

    Only theoretically. Besides, who do you mean by “our”? You mean unionists? That day is gone. That’s why I disagree with DK’s post – past UK governments may have been sanguine about Ireland’s future, most may not have been opposed in principle to the idea of withdrawal, but all have judged Britain’s strategic and security interests to be best served by sticking it out, at least in the medium term, and have naturally aligned with unionists, as they have always been the first line of defence against change.

    But that day is over. Today, rather than the relationship between British and Irish governments being defined by the north, that bilateral governmental relationship is the dominant relationship in NI – and we’re not even part of it! The two governments are as one in ensuring that the troublesome natives of these six counties never again poison the wider relationship between the two islands.

    And the terrible thing for unionists is that both governments, the real power brokers here, regard unionism – not Protestants, not the British-Irish, not the Orange tradition, but unionism, as the problem.

  • Shore Road Resident

    It’s very important to this stage of the process that you keep on believing that Billy.
    So… good man yourself.