Security Service to deliver on five key principles of working
Brian Rowan, Belfast Telegraph | 22 November 2006
The British Security Service will sign up to the five principles that senior police officers here believe must form the basis of future working arrangements between the PSNI and MI5.
Those principles are about agent running, accountability and ensuring that all MI5 intelligence relating to Northern Ireland is visible to the police.
According to an informed source who spoke to the Belfast Telegraph, MI5 sees this as "deliverable".
The source also confirmed that there would be "a national aspect" to the new MI5 headquarters being built at Palace Barracks in Holywood.
He described the new headquarters as "part of the UK national security infrastructure", and said those who will work there "will be doing a substantial amount of UK-wide analysis and assessment".
Information technology will be used to relay "GB-wide information to analysts sitting in Northern Ireland and in the eight other (MI5) stations outside London."
Late next year, the Security Service will take over responsibility for national security matters here - meaning monitoring the international terrorist and dissident republican threats.
Asked how the IRA fits into the national security threat, the source said: "When you look at the description of what MI5 does - protecting national security - they are looking at terrorism.
"If the IRA don't fit into that, they are not going to be the subject of focus."
The source pointed to recent comments by the head of MI5 Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller - comments relating to 30 terror plots threatening the UK and to 1,600 individuals being kept under surveillance.
"That's where the imminent threat to public safety is," the source continued.
In political negotiations here the SDLP is still pushing for the Police Ombudsman's Office to be given responsibility to deal with complaints against MI5.
But the source who spoke to this newspaper said: "I can't see how the Ombudsman can oversee a national security service."
The SDLP and Sinn Fein are also concerned that MI5 could recruit ex-RUC Special Branch officers to work in the new Palace Barracks headquarters.
Nearer the time of national security responsibility being transferred to MI5, an advertisement for a small number of staff to work in Northern Ireland will appear on its website.
Applicants must have lived in the UK for nine out of the last 10 years, and must hold a British passport.
The source would not discuss the question of ex-RUC Special Branch officers being recruited, other than to say: "There's no bar on anyone (applying)."
A new building for a new war must be seen in a wider frame
MI5's new building in Holywood is being constructed to deal with a different type of war. Security writer Brian Rowan reports
From inside the intelligence world, I am told that the big building that has just grown out of the ground inside Palace Barracks in Holywood has to be seen in a much wider frame.
Politically, here in Northern Ireland, there isn't a more controversial building right now - a controversy that has nothing to do with design but everything to do with purpose.
The structure that has appeared inside the army barracks is a new headquarters for MI5 - a new war building in a place where there is a developing peace.
But the new building is about the new war - not about the old war in Northern Ireland but the new threat that is international terrorism.
In the words of one source, it is "part of the UK national security infrastructure".
So what does that mean? To quote the same source, it means those who will be working there "will be doing a substantial amount of UK-wide analysis and assessment", not "if required" but "as required".
And to see the building in purely Northern Ireland terms "is wrong".
MI5's UK infrastructure is a 10-building jigsaw branching out from its Thames House London headquarters to its six regional "stations" in England and then into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Such are the wonders of IT and the security service database and methodology that intelligence assessments can be done anywhere and everywhere across those buildings and much of that work will be "piped" into Northern Ireland.
This is the wider MI5 context for the new Palace Barracks headquarters.
"There will be a national aspect to the Northern Ireland headquarters," a security source told this newspaper.
That will mean "information technology relaying GB-wide information to analysts sitting in Northern Ireland and in the eight other stations outside London".
The future of the security service in Northern Ireland is something that is still being talked about, fought over and teased out in the political background - in separate negotiations that are continuing between the SDLP and the British Government and between Sinn Fein and the British Government.
The negotiations in which the SDLP has been involved are different in that the party has been talking directly to MI5's director and co-ordinator of intelligence in Belfast and to Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan, who has control of Special Branch.
A third person involved in these negotiations is the Northern Ireland Office's most senior security official, Nick Perry.
Peter Sheridan is the author of the so-called five principles, which are about establishing the new working arrangements between the PSNI and the British security service in Northern Ireland when MI5 takes responsibility for national security matters here late next year.
National security now means monitoring the international terrorist and republican dissident threats.
The Sheridan principles are about agent running, accountability and about ensuring that all relevant MI5 intelligence information relating to Northern Ireland is visible to the PSNI and is disseminated within the policing system.
I am told the security service sees all of that "as deliverable" and is "actively working with the police to deliver" on the five principles.
As far as the SDLP and Sinn Fein are concerned, that will not settle the accountability argument.
The SDLP wants the Police Ombudsman's office in Belfast to deal with complaints against MI5 but that argument is far from settled and far from won.
"I can't see how the Ombudsman can oversee a national security service," said the source who spoke to this newspaper. "There is a good dialogue between MI5 and the Ombudsman's office," the source continued.
"There will be a good degree of visibility by the Ombudsman of what MI5 are doing."
The PSNI officers who will work on attachment to MI5 will remain "warrant-carrying police officers", the source added. This means they will be fully accountable to the mechanisms and structures that grew out of the Patten reforms.
Gerry Adams said recently there could be no role for MI5 in civic policing - a comment that brought a swift response from the source who spoke to the Belfast Telegraph.
"It's not MI5's role," the source said. The security service was "purely focused on threats to UK national security".
The source pointed to recent comments from the head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller - comments about 30 terrorist plots threatening the UK and 1,600 individuals being kept under surveillance.
"That's where the imminent threat to public safety is," the source said.
MI5 has 2,850 staff. "You can do the maths," he added - meaning MI5 has enough on its plate or on its 2,850 plates without having to worry about matters of routine or civic policing.
Indeed, the security service is no longer investigating serious and organised crime.
These are matters for the police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
The resources of MI5 are now firmly focused on that growing threat of international terrorism.
On where the IRA fits into the national security picture, the source continued: "When you look at the description of what MI5 does - protecting national security - they are looking at terrorism.
"If the IRA don't fit into that, they are not going to be the subject of focus."
Republicans are not going to take the word of MI5 for that. The old war is still too fresh in the memory.
But if the objective of the continuing background political negotiations is to ensure that national security is kept separate from civic policing and that PSNI officers on attachment to the security service remain accountable to the policing system, then those things are achievable.
"Some argue that that's possible in theory," SDLP policing spokesman Alex Attwood said.
"We say that only by having proper accountability and complaints mechanisms will people know that in practice those objectives are being achieved."
As the old war in Northern Ireland fades, it is the new war and the international threat that has got the attention of MI5.
That new building in Palace Barracks may have been grown to meet the needs of the security service - a service that is still watching and listening - but Northern Ireland and the IRA are no longer what they used to be. MI5 knows that.