MI5 incapable of accountability

The disagreement between Sinn Féin and the SDLP on the acceptability of MI5 ignores the nature of that organisation and the immunity from accountability it enjoys. By Eamon McCann


Gerry Kelly hailed Tony Blair's announcement on the “separation of powers” between the PSNI and MI5 as a significant advance for which Sinn Féin could claim credit: the PSNI would no longer be compromised by attachment to the unaccountable MI5.

Alex Attwood, SDLP MLA for West Belfast, responded that the prior arrangement endorsed by the SDLP had been preferable, in that it made MI5 somewhat accountable to the police ombudsman.

In fact, MI5 is a beast incapable of survival within the ethos of accountability. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was exposed as plotting to bring down the British government itself. The Irish News (11 January) quoted Kelly saying that Sinn Féin had received assurances that, “arrangements will be made that the Police Ombudsman will have access to information held by MI5 when this is necessary to the discharge of her duties.”

The assurances will have come from Tony Blair. What Blair had said was that, “Northern Ireland's Ombudsman may be given access to sensitive files held by the security services.”

The willingness of the British ruling class to make MI5 even minimally accountable was put to the test at the Saville Tribunal, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. The tribunal is a more august and constitutionally powerful body than the police ombudsman's office, established by parliament with the powers of the High Court to summon testimony and compel documents in pursuit of the truth about a specific matter of urgent public importance.

Over a week in May 2003, this writer attended the hearings in London at which seven former or serving MI5 officers testified. All apart from disaffected ex-officers David Shayler and Annie Machon gave their evidence anonymously from behind screens.

In a typical exchange, Barry McDonald, representing a majority of the families, asked “Julian”, a retired member of MI5 who had run agents in the North in 1972, whether there had been any informers in the Bogside other than a man already mentioned. Tribunal QC Alan Roxburgh interjected: “My understanding is that the Security Service [MI5] does not object to that question being answered. But in case my understanding is wrong, I would invite Mr Sales to confirm the position.”

MI5's barrister Philip Sales responded: “I can confirm that what Mr Roxburgh has said is correct.” The question was then allowed.
On around a dozen occasions Sales intervened to explain MI5's requirements with regard to the parameters of questioning. On no occasion was his guidance rejected.

McDonald asked “Julian” about a reference in a document to a device called an “Alvis.” “What is an Alvis?”

Roxburgh (for the Tribunal): “Before the witness answers that question...I understand that (MI5's) position may be that they are content that it should be indicated that Alvis was a means of communication, but not to provide further details... I will be corrected if I am wrong by Mr Sales.”

Sales. “That is correct, sir.”

Saville: “What Mr Roxburgh says is right?”

Sales: “What Mr Roxburgh says is right, yes.”

Saville: “I think you will have to leave that there, Mr McDonald. I am sorry.”

And there it was left.

A former member of the Provisional IRA went to jail for refusing to give evidence. Others, including a number of journalists, were warned they might be cited for contempt when they refused to answer particular questions. But MI5 was allowed throughout to dictate what evidence it would provide.

In light of that experience, it is perplexing that Sinn Féin has come to believe on the basis of conversations with Tony Blair that the police ombudsman “will have access to information held by MI5 when this is necessary to the discharge of her duties”.

No scheme for making MI5 accountable was ever going to be accepted by the British authorities. Having, inevitably, achieved nothing of substance in negotiations on the issue, neither Sinn Féin nor the SDLP has had any option but to fudge and flannel so as to try to convince supporters that they had won a better bargain than their rivals.