MI5 begins moving into new spy station
Chris Thornton, Belfast Telegraph | 11 October 2007
MI5 agents have started moving into their new Northern Ireland headquarters as the security agency is just weeks away from taking control of anti-terror operations.
The multi-million pound building is being developed as the PSNI and Security Services put the finishing touches on detailed agreements about intelligence sharing.
When those agreements are finished, MI5 will take over the lead responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland from the police.
The spy station in greater Belfast - believed to be in a new building inside Palace Barracks in Holywood - will house the agency's Northern Ireland operations. But it will also serve as a back-up headquarters in case MI5's London base, Thames House, becomes damaged or cut off by a terrorist attack.
Dolores Kelly, the SDLP Policing Board member who has long opposed the handover to MI5, questioned how that key position in anti-terror and disaster planning squares with the 1990 declaration that Britain has " no selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland.
And she said her party will continue to push for Police Ombudsman investigators to be given open access to the intelligence of which MI5 is to take control.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan has been negotiating safeguards about intelligence sharing with the Security Service. When that Memorandum of Understanding is completed and made public, the PSNI will hand over its current national security responsibilities.
In anticipation of the handover - which should take place by the end of the year at the latest - MI5 has been bringing the new Northern Ireland HQ into operation. Agents were moved in from outlying stations and IT systems brought online.
One Whitehall source said there is "slow and steady" progress towards the building becoming fully operational.
Last month the agency began advertising for staff for the Northern Ireland headquarters.
Mr Sheridan told the Policing Board recently that agreement between the PSNI and MI5 was nearly completed.
It will embody five principles he outlined during devolution negotiations last year, including guarantees that the PSNI will be kept informed of all MI5 anti-terror operations.
The PSNI will also continue to run the "great majority" of informers and should be given access to all relevant intelligence.
Policing sources say the broad document that will eventually be made public has been agreed, but some points on the details are still being negotiated.
Policing Board human rights advisors Keir Starmer QC and Jane Gordon have reviewed the documents on behalf of the Board. Mr Starmer said: "The key issues are: Can the PSNI rely on intelligence they don't control, and how quickly can they act on intelligence they think is relevant?"
He said the agreements between the PSNI and MI5 will go into " considerable detail" about the way intelligence is shared.
But Mrs Kelly said her party still isn't satisfied. "We will continue to say it is critical for policing and for confidence in policing that the accountability mechanisms that apply to police should also apply to MI5," she said.