Call for more scrutiny of MI5's role in Ulster

19 November 2006

Some of MI5's activities could be placed under the independent scrutiny of Northern Ireland's Police Ombudsman under a move to be made at Westminster on Tuesday.

The SDLP are tabling an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill, which will bring the St Andrews Agreement into law. It will give the Ombudsman powers to investigate security operations that jointly involve MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

At present under the St Andrews deal, MI5, which now has supreme control of all counter-terrorist intelligence in the North of Ireland, is not subject to any independent outside control.

Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, confirmed last night that the party intended to attempt to amend the Agreement in order to make the security services' actions amenable to the Ombudsman. Under the Patten reforms, the PSNI is obliged in law to open all its files to the Ombudsman in any investigation.

'If we don't act on this then MI5's role will undermine the whole point of Patten, which was to grant some democratic control and scrutiny over security policies,' Durkan said.

'If the status quo remains, any future Minister of Justice or Policing will have no access, let alone control of, a crucial part of security policy. In the event of a terrorist outrage taking place here, a Minister of Justice would be standing up in the Assembly unable to give the full intelligence picture as he or she wouldn't have any access to that intelligence,' the Foyle MP said.

Policing has become the key to unlocking the door to restored devolution in Northern Ireland. A crucial element to the Northern Ireland Bill is a pledge by future First and Deputy First Ministers to support the PSNI and the rule of law. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are encountering grassroots opposition to Sinn Fein signing up to support what they see as a British police force.

The Adams-McGuinness leadership have tried to sell the St Andrews deal by pointing to the possibility of a Sinn Fein Minister of Policing or Justice when those powers are devolved. However, the transfer of terrorist intelligence from the police to MI5 means at present that any such minister would have no effective control over counter-terrorrist operations in Northern Ireland.

Democratic Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the party was happy with the ministerial pledge contained within the 71-page bill. 'If Sinn Fein sign up then they are in reality pledging support for a British police force,' he said.

Donaldson said the DUP was also content that all counter-terrorist intelligence in the North of Ireland was in the hands of MI5. 'Terrorist intelligence and counter-terrorist operations have effectively been boxed off. No local minister can get their hands on or ever abuse that information or policies,' he added.

It is now highly likely that the government's 24 November deadline will pass without the parties forming a devolved administration. Irish government sources admitted that Peter Hain's threat to roll up the Stormont Assembly and make its members redundant on Friday will not now be carried out.

'The real deadline is 26 March after the elections on the 2nd,' one Dublin source told The Observer. 'It gives everybody time to sell the deal to their respective constituencies.'

Meanwhile the centrist Alliance Party warned last night that the St Andrews Agreement is threatening to become a 'division of power rather than a power sharing arrangement'.

Alliance leader David Ford said the exclusion of his party from tomorrow's Programme for Government Committee at Stormont indicated that Sinn Fein and the DUP, are 'more interested in a sectarian carve up rather than inclusion'.