Nationalists rail against new MI5 role in Ulster

22 November 2006

The enhanced role of MI5 in Northern Ireland and the size of its regional headquarters are emerging as increasingly contentious issues in the run-up to the restoration of devolution.

Nationalist politicians - who fear that an "institutional bias" against tackling loyalist paramilitaries in the security service could undermine confidence in the political process - are pressing the government to make the agency accountable to public scrutiny.

The Social Democratic and Labour party attempted to table an amendment to the legislation setting up the Stormont assembly at Westminster this week.

The party wants the police ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, to have the authority to investigate complaints against MI5.

The amendment was disallowed on a technicality but is likely to be reintroduced in the coming weeks.

MI5 is due to assume responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland next year, bringing it into line with the division of powers elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

But the handover is provoking political tensions in a divided society more concerned about the agency's use of informers during the Troubles than the threat of al-Qaida suicide bombers.

The implication that MI5 will focus chiefly on dissident republican paramilitaries and leave the monitoring of loyalist groups to the Police Service of Northern Ireland - because they are not deemed to constitute a threat to the state - has further angered nationalists.

The secret funding of MI5's Northern Ireland office has been condemned by the SDLP's leader, Mark Durkan, as "perverse and damaging".

In addition, the scale of the agency's new building - nearing completion inside palace army barracks in Holywood, east of Belfast - has heightened suspicions about the extent of its role.

In one heavily-edited section of the Intelligence and Security Committee's annual report earlier this summer, a paragraph noted: "The new [MI5] headquarters in Belfast, to which the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has contributed £***, will be constructed at a total cost of about £***.

"The NIO has also met programme running costs for the next two years of £*** and £*** respectively."

Ms O'Loan has also expressed "significant concerns" about the handover and is urging that MI5 should be legally required to provide access to intelligence records for misconduct investigations.

In her annual report to parliament, she warned: "Where there is a complaint of collusion by the police... access to intelligence is essential.

"It is vitally important that my office retains an ability to access relevant information and intelligence matters."

This week Eddie McGrady, the SDLP MP, described the expansion of MI5's remit as a "retrograde step" since "the government's own Organised Crime Taskforce has conceded [that] organised criminality and paramilitarism are two sides of the one coin".

Only one force was required in the province, he maintained.

An SDLP spokesman added: "It's been confirmed to us that MI5 are not interested in taking on loyalism. That's institutional bias. How are they meant to create confidence in a new [political] beginning? "Even under the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, in London, complaints can only be brought by those who have been put under surveillance, not by anybody let down by MI5," the spokesman continued.

"That means Osama bin Laden can complain but not the relatives of the victims of the Omagh bomb who have been told by the police that MI5 did not pass on the warnings of bomb threats."

The Northern Ireland Office defended the costs. "From 2007, national security arrangements in Northern Ireland will be brought into line with those for the rest of the UK," a spokesman said.

"Some of the cost for the transfer of intelligence lead is being provided by the NIO."

MI5's overt involvement has become such a sensitive issue that a four-page annexe of the recent St Andrew's agreement - which set out a "road map" towards the restoration of devolution - related to the agency.

The document declared that the "great majority of national security agents will be run by the PSNI".

It also set out five key principles, including that "the PSNI will be informed of all security service counter-terrorist investigations" and that "all security service intelligence relating to terrorism [in NI] will be visible to the PSNI".

The percentage of MI5's budget spent on combating Irish terrorism has dropped in recent years and now stands at around 17%.