SDLP and Sinn Féin clash on agency's role in north

11 January 2009

Sharp differences of opinion emerged yesterday (Wednesday) between Sinn Féin and the SDLP over MI5's future role in Northern Ireland following Prime Minister Tony Blair's statement which was aimed at clarifying this controversial question.

Sinn Féin claimed that following intense negotiations they had now secured "the reversal of the British government's proposal to integrate the PSNI and MI5".

The SDLP maintained that Mr Blair's statement "negotiated with Sinn Féin" does not sort out MI5 and the "supposed separation formula" will damage accountability.

The Ulster Unionists also said the statement may offer much delight for Sinn Féin, but creates "a confused mess."

Sinn Féin's spokesman on policing and justice Gerry Kelly said that his party's objective has been to firewall local policing from the 'malign and corruptive' control of MI5.

"These proposals remove MI5 from policing structures in Ireland," he said.

Sinn Féin said that there will now be no PSNI members under the control of MI5; and that MI5 will have no role in civic policing.

Mr Kelly said that arrangements will be made that the Police Ombudsman will have access to information held by MI5 where this is necessary to the discharge of her duties.

Yesterday Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams was asked if the prime minister's statement would be helpful in terms of going ahead with the special ard fheis on policing, as the ard chomhairle meets to consider this at the weekend?

Mr Adams replied: "It is obviously a matter which the ard chomhairle will have to consider.

"I made the point when we announced the ard fheis that it was predicated upon the governments and other parties including the DUP responding positively.

"So, this clearly was part of the British government's commitment at that time and it will have to be looked at in the round.

"But we still have not got over the grave difficulty which is caused by the DUP resiling from their responsibilities in these matters."

However, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said that the prime minister's statement confirms that MI5 will still be taking over primacy on national security.

"It's not just on international terror but home grown paramilitaries too," he said.

"The supposed 'separation formula' will damage accountability.

"The fact is that the Police Ombudsman can investigate national security matters now.

"When MI5 takes over, she will not be able to – and will have no power to make them give her information."

The SDLP also believe that MI5 will start recruiting into their ranks both former PSNI and RUC officers of senior ranks including those described as "the big hitters" in the old special branch.

SDLP policing spokesman Alex Attwood said that far from undoing annex E in the St Andrews proposals Sinn Féin had compounded errors by allowing MI5 to have an extended role in the north and to recruit and manage agents here, including in republican organisations.

UUP policing spokesman Fred Cobain said that in the rush to appease Sinn Féin, Mr Blair has lost his way completely by raising further question marks over the Policing and Justice Ministry.