Viewpoint: MI5, the PM and the PSNI operation

11 January 2007

Only those who have a detailed understanding of how MI5, the UK's internal security service, works can say whether the Prime Minister's assurances on its new role in Northern Ireland will be effective. Clearly they are designed to placate Sinn Fein, and ensure that there is sufficient distinction between MI5 and the PSNI to allow republicans to support the police, but there will be continuing doubts about accountability until there is experience of the system.

In an ingenious attempt to solve the problem, the independent reviewer of terrorism law, Lord Carlisle, has been given an oversight role on intelligence gathering. Although he will have access to MI5, the political parties and the Policing Board, carrying out reviews and writing reports, there are worrying suggestions that the most sensitive security documents will remain secret.

The whole point of Mr Blair's initiative is to show republicans that there is no reason for them to withhold support from the police, and to pave the way for an ard fheis to approve the leadership's new policing policy.

However, he would have to admit that the decision to establish a brand new MI5 base in Holywood, to gather intelligence on both Islamic and dissident republican terrorism, has added greatly to Sinn Fein's problems.

By definition, MI5 is a secret service, and it is bound to use every means of infiltrating Britain's enemies, whatever their objectives. It will be running its own informers, within the dissident republican movement, and will no doubt liaise with the PSNI over the use of its intelligence sources.

There is no denying the potential for disagreement, between MI5 and the PSNI, and a code of conduct has been drawn up to make sure that they do not encroach on each other's territories _ or, if they do, that complaints will be addressed.

But convincing the broad nationalist community that the two services remain separate, and that normal, civic policing will not be prejudiced by MI5 concerns will be a difficult task. While the SDLP wanted the Police Ombudsman to have responsibility for investigating complaints against MI5, the Government has chosen the option of an independent commissioner.

The row over who investigates the investigator could not have come at a worse time, when all minds should be focused on Sinn Fein's delivery of support for the police and on the DUP's subsequent commitment to power-sharing and devolution of policing and justice powers. For the sake of political progress, one can only hope that the party leaders have been kept in the picture by the governments - and that both will approve the solution. Now for the ard fheis.