New spook palace is the last thing we need

21 November 2006

The most surprising thing about the policing debate is not the speculations about the level of difficulty facing Sinn Féin in persuading their faithful followers to take that final deep breath and support the PSNI but the lack of debate about the new super headquarters for MI5 and associated spooks currently being built in Holywood.

While the SDLP and Sinn Féin indeed query the need and reporting arrangements for these autonomous intelligence services, Brendan Duddy, Derry business man and recent appointee to the Policing Board, is the only voice I have heard raise questions about the need, in the first place, for this new spook palace.

During 35 years of the Troubles the secret services worked out of (unknown to the public) low-profile buildings in the Stormont estate. Now that the IRA war is over, what on earth do they need with a new, publicly-recognisable, costly big building?

Yes, we know that there are dissident republicans around but aren't they already known to the PSNI, who so far - and fingers crossed - seem capable of preventing their worst excesses? A new visible building isn't going to make a jot of difference to success or failure in that regard.

As for the continued existence of loyalist terrorists; the only interest in these groupings the secret service ever displayed was to infiltrate them in order to better attack what they were preoccupied with as their real and only enemy in Northern Ireland - the IRA.

Certainly in the past the existence of a large contingent of intelligence people may have been necessary. But now even Ian Paisley agrees that the war is over.

As Brendan Duddy requested some weeks ago, could someone in government please tell us what this visible and increased presence is all for then? Why, at a time that they should also be going away, are MI5 coming out instead?

There is no doubt that nationally and internationally the threat of major terrorist outrages has never been greater and if one believes that secret services can foil that threat, then it stands to sense that MI5 and its ilk needs to be bigger and better resourced than ever.

But why in this country? The threat does not come from or within Northern Ireland where hopefully people, who for many years lived with the constant reminder of terrorist attacks, can now live out the rest of their lives free from bombs and assassination attacks.

We need anything but a visible intelligence headquarters which in itself could become a target for international terrorists.

What we need is time to establish a civilian police service that for the first time in the history of the country secures the support of all the people. 
That civilian police service's priority, as recommended in the Patten report, must be developing a partnership with communities in order to tackle ordinary crime.

More than ever before, and in stark contrast to the continuing total lack of accountability of the intelligence services here, the PSNI must continue to be open and transparent.

It must continue to have tight accountability links to the PSNI board and through the responsibilities and powers of the Police Ombudsman.

At local level, the PSNI must establish policing partnerships which in themselves need real, not proxy, community representatives, people who live in the high-crime areas and who have a real interest in working with the police to tackle local crime.

So far the PSNI has shown that it can transform itself and that such processes take time. No-one should know that better than republican activists engaged at the same time in a parallel process.

And if they are to be given the chance and the space to become successful politicians and/or respected citizens hopefully they will show the same generosity of spirit to police personnel to do the same.

Such change after existing as mortal enemies is sensitive and for some painful.

It matters too much to risk being wrecked by a regrouped, renewed MI5 who, even in their house of splendid isolation, account to no-one here but still have as their primary objective the defeat of the IRA - even though the IRA in effect has gone away.