SF slow on uptake over new NI role for MI5

19 November 2006

THE issue of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI5) was discussed at length during an afternoon of talks between an SDLP delegation and a British official delegation led by the Northern Secretary, Peter Hain, during the second day of the three-day session at St Andrew's university campus outside Edinburgh last month.

From next year, MI5 assumes "lead responsibility for national security intelligence work in Northern Ireland". A massive MI5 headquarters building is nearing completion on the eastern outskirts of Belfast in the grounds of the old British army Palace Barracks in Holywood.

The SDLP group, led by the party's policing spokesman, Alex Attwood, demanded throughout that the British provide some form of supervision of MI5's activities and that the intelligence agency agree to be publicly accountable for its actions.

The demands were regarded as so important to the SDLP that they were prepared to withhold support of any agreement emerging from the talks unless they were acknowledged in the agreed document. They were successful, and an annexe to the report - Annexe E - was included in the final draught, which provides for further examination of the issues raised by the SDLP.

The plenary session at St Andrew's on the proposal to establish a major MI5 operation and a high-security headquarters is, clearly, a significant issue. Nationalists in the North are already comparing the Palace Barracks MI5 HQ to the old Dublin Castle headquarters of British Intelligence in pre-independence Ireland. The SDLP had a prepared four-page position paper and party leader Mark Durkan has been asking questions in Westminster about the issue over the past year.

However, although any of the North's parties was entitled to engage with the British secretary of state on this key issue, the SDLP was the sole political party present. While the pro-security-forces positions of the DUP and UUP might explain their lack of interest, there was one party which should definitely have had an interest in proceedings: Sinn Fein. Its absence, according to one of those present, was "astounding".

In fact, the issues being raised by the SDLP on the monitoring and accountability of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service were regarded as so significant that the US special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, sat in on the talks, observing rather than contributing. The United States clearly has a significant interest in matters pertaining to the conduct of the British intelligence service with whom the CIA and FBI exchange information. The Americans would, for obvious reasons of secrecy, want to know if their intelligence was to be put under scrutiny by some kind of independent watchdog with access to MI5 in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein, however, did not seem to feel the need to be present to pin the British down on MI5's role and how its activities could be controlled and monitored on Irish soil.

According to sources involved in the St Andrew's talks it appeared that Sinn Fein only learned of the outcome of the plenary session about making MI5 accountable when they read the annexe drawn up in conjunction with the SDLP the following day, Friday. At the very last minute, according to the sources, Gerry Adams literally ran from the Sinn Fein room and pursued Tony Blair up a flight of stairs to his private room where he was changing his shirt and tie in preparation for the final Friday afternoon press conference. Adams, apparently, only raised the issue of MI5 assuming control of intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland in the final 15 minutes of the whole three days of the St Andrew's sessions - as Tony Blair was changing his shirt, fixing his tie and checking his hair in preparation for his media appearance. Adams's last-minute intervention in the prime minister's dressing room did not appear to make much of a difference. The annexe on MI5 appeared exactly as it had been agreed between the SDLP and the British.

Sinn Fein's position on MI5 has, since St Andrew's, appeared to stiffen - a little. In his weekly column in Vincent Browne's Village magazine of November 9-15, Adams said: "There can be no role in civic policing in Ireland for MI5." The column rehashed issues close to Sinn Fein's heart such as the murder of Pat Finucane, and referred to British and RUC "collusion" with what were referred to as "unionist death squads".

The column ignored the fact that the MI5 operation in Northern Ireland has largely come about because of Sinn Fein's continued insistence that the Police Service of Northern Ireland should not inherit the old RUC Special Branch, that there actually be no Special Branch in the PSNI. The Sinn Fein catchphrase still used by its spokesmen and women to explain why they have not supported the PSNI so far is because of "political policing".

As few media commentators in the Republic actually know much about the policing and intelligence debate in the North, the Sinn Fein position on the role of police - and British intelligence agents - in the North is rarely challenged in the Republic.

The issue should, on the face of it, be a critical one for republicans. In fact, there would seem to be no issue of greater significance for Sinn Fein voters, who are still nowhere near being sold on the idea of supporting the PSNI. A secret opinion poll conducted on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office just after St Andrew's found that 59 per cent of Sinn Fein voters did not think the party should support the PSNI while only 30 per cent were in favour of backing the PSNI.

If almost 60 per cent of their supporters were opposed to the locally raised police force, it might seem probable that an even higher proportion would be uneasy about supporting Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service.

Sinn Fein's lack of interest in the issues of accountability and monitoring of police and intelligence agents has prompted considerable amusement among SDLP negotiators, in view of Sinn Fein's distinct embarrassment over the fact that its former senior administrator, Denis Donaldson, shot dead at his Donegal holiday home earlier this year, was exposed as an agent believed to have been working for MI5.

The SDLP, during negotiations, also expressed concerns raised by the family of Robert McCartney that the leading Belfast IRA man who ordered his murder outside Magennis's pub in Belfast in February 2005 is immune from prosecution because he too is an MI5 agent. The man was arrested but has never been charged.

According to security sources the new MI5 headquarters in Belfast will mainly monitor two sets of activity in Northern Ireland: dissident republicans and militant Islamicism. It is also understood that the intelligence agency has taken over the running of a group of informants still connected to the Provisional IRA.

The Palace Barracks base is one of a series of new regional headquarters being set up throughout the United Kingdom which are due to open next year. The expansion of MI5 has been ordered in direct response to the spread of militant Islamic groups in Britain, and the intelligence organisation is devoting a reported 90 per cent of its resources to carrying out surveillance on groups suspected of planning attacks in Britain.