Why we need to spy on the spies

17 January 2007

MI5 cultivates a culture of arrogant unaccountability and boasts that it doesn't even have a press office. Now, it's building a new £20m regional centre inside Palace Barracks, Holywood. But, says Chris Ryder, the legacy of the work of its 'silky spies' during the Troubles proves the SDLP is right to demand MI5's conduct in Northern Ireland is subject to effective scrutiny

The Prime Minister's assurance that there will be a definitive line between 'civic policing' and 'security service counter-terrorist investigations and operations relating to Northern Ireland' is hopelessly hollow and impractical.

It flies in the face of reality because the picture he paints of the two firms working separately to protect public tranquillity and national security is starkly idealistic, for both are locked in a long-standing rivalry born of the different philosophies and rules that govern their professional behaviour. The congenital competition between the police, Army and security service, which continues, was one of the most defining characteristics of security policy here during the years of conflict.

Each organisation ruthlessly battled to recruit informers and get them into key positions in the various terrorist groupings so that they could have first-hand information to capture their hardware, interdict their violent activities and claim the credit.

Notionally they were supposed to share and exchange information to protect life and property, and the vast majority of brave officers in all three services did so, shrewdly analysing intelligence and often risking their own lives handling informers.

However, in this clandestine environment, ruthless individual ambition and personal prejudice sometimes prevailed, and vital intelligence was not shared and exploited as vigorously as it should have been.

Such was the shambles that sometimes well-paid informers were able to sell the same information to both the police and army for months on end before they were rumbled.

More seriously, a minority of police officers and soldiers took the law into their own hands, betrayed the integrity of their task and engaged in damagingly treacherous behaviour.

They leaked supposedly secret material to terrorists to stimulate revenge attacks and others actively colluded with gunmen and bombers to settle personal scores.

Such criminal conduct was all too often ignored for pragmatic political reasons or because of the mutual distrust and deadly rivalry between the police and Army. Further, each organisation resented what they saw as the swaggering superiority of 'the silky spies', as one Special Branch officer described them, who ran the security service.

Senior police officers like him privately railed against the 'UK Eyes Only' classification applied to many documents which were only circulated to senior British officials and soldiers. Inside the RUC itself there was a particularly wary atmosphere for its own main intelligence gathering arm, Special Branch, acted as a 'force within a force' and all too frequently internally suppressed information it regarded as too sensitive to be shared.


On one notorious occasion when a chief constable asked for details of a particular operation, his head of Special Branch refused to tell him: " Need to know goes up as well down, sir."

Although the lives of informers were undoubtedly at stake - as evidenced by a string of grotesque murders and abductions - the full extent and the implications of this dubious 'cloak and dagger' regime are still being unravelled.

Because it is already clear that the legacy is so highly damaging, multi-layered rigorous oversight and accountability mechanisms now circumscribe the conduct of the PSNI, which replaced the RUC five years ago.

Special Branch has been integrated into mainstream criminal intelligence gathering, safeguards are in place to regulate the handling of informers and there are protocols governing surveillance and the interception of communications.

Independent scrutiny is provided for through the Policing Board and other organisations.

Because of the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, and the historical difficulties associated with policing and security matters, this comprehensive accountability regime is rightly more exacting than in the rest of the United Kingdom and is indeed unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

However, it does not and, according to present government policy, will not apply to MI5, the expanding Security Service, which, at a time when the police and Army are downsizing to take account of 'normalisation' in Northern Ireland, is building a £20m regional centre inside Palace Barracks, Holywood and actively recruiting staff to operate it.

Since the new building appeared above the north Down skyline more than a year ago, the SDLP, alone among the political parties here, has been robustly trying to penetrate the fog of secrecy that traditionally cloaks the organisation, its personnel and their activities.

More importantly, the SDLP has been campaigning to have suitable mechanisms put in place here, to make MI5 fully accountable for its work.

Apart from differing standards applying to the PSNI and MI5, they argue that the current levels of oversight of MI5 are both impotent and ineffective.

Parliamentary scrutiny of the security services is cursory and virtually powerless. Above all, the complaints procedure is both opaque and toothless.

Of the 380 complaints made to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal - which investigates MI5 - not one has been upheld and not once were reasons given.


The figure is hardly surprising for MI5 cultivates for itself a culture of arrogant unaccountability. Its website loftily boasts that it does not have a press office and does not comment on intelligence matters.

It also promotes a sense of self-righteous superiority among its staff as its recruitment documentation demonstrates: Discretion is an integral part of working for MI5, so before you consider applying, ask yourself this: would you be content for your own and your team's successes to remain unknown outside the intelligence community?

There is, of course, a compelling case for discretion and secrecy when having to deal with the current terrorist threat to the free world, one that dwarfs even the worst capacity of our home-grown subversives and there must remain adequate provisions to prevent any of this work being inhibited.

But because the intelligence community abused its blank cheque in the past - and not just in Northern Ireland as the debacle over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction all too damagingly illustrates - there is an equally unanswerable case for having open and transparent scrutiny over the way they exercise the considerable invasive powers they have been given and the intrusive technology at their disposal.

As we move, however grudgingly, into a new dispensation here with political stability and a much reduced subversive threat, it is all the more important that there is effective scrutiny of its conduct in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP is therefore right to look around several corners and not to accept Tony Blair's assurances designed, as they are, to suck Sinn Fein into an historic, unprecedented and belated acceptance of the new beginning for policing, rooted in the 1999 Patten Commission report.

Unionists, loyalists and republicans should urgently support the effort the SDLP is making to force the British government to ensure the Police Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission, the Policing Board and other arms of the oversight community are provided with the right and the means to hold the security service publicly to account just as rigorously as they do the PSNI.

Such powers must be granted to inspire public confidence and dispel any notion they have that maintaining national security is an unaccountable pre-occupation for the intelligence community alone.