By playing politics, local parties show they are not ready to deal with serious security threats

 Is SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie right?

“There is no evidence that MI5 puts a high priority on the dissident threat beyond providing some signals and background intelligence, which may amount to nothing more than listening to gossip and monitoring a few dodgy websites,”

Yet this case is  one of several  that show MI5 have a reach that the PSNI by itself can hardly match. And arrests after the Strand Road bomb while not of course conclusive, have been  pretty prompt. Pre-empting the dissidents is  of course  better than arrests and that requires two things:  community cooperation and serious intelligence work. Ms Ritchie may be reflecting a view that the latter is prejudicing the former. What’s the evidence?  If true, she should  spell it out.  Otherwise we can assume there will always be protests when the heat is on. Politicians who campaigned for law and order responsibility will have to face up to that.          

The SDLP have never been happy with MI5’s lack of local accountability. References to the trauma of Omagh revive memories of the unresolved controversy over different priorities of the intelligence services and the police.

However the nationalist parties supported the downgrading of Special Branch when the PSNI replaced the RUC. Omagh was the grimmest possible reminder that an intelligence operation was still needed to fill the gap.

Does the SDLP really regret that? Or perhaps they’re just trying to score over the Sinn Fein who still formally stigmatise MI5 as “securocrats ” and who are walking on eggs when it comes to dealing with the dissidents?

I have always assumed that one of the reasons for giving MI5 a substantial semi-public role was to take some of the heat off the new police force and make them more acceptable to nationalist people and politicians. The politicians might complain from time to time but basically the delicate concordat held.

Is it now in serious question under pressure from a rising dissident threat? One can only devoutly hope not.

Perish the thought that political parties should play politics with security at a sensitive time.  But it is very interesting to say the least, that despite the devolution of policing and justice powers, the two sovereign governments are taking it upon themselves to maintain back channels to the dissidents. They may believe that local politicians are still not ready to take full responsibility for the sharper edges of law and order.  

Who’s to say they’re wrong?




Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London