“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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