No room for MI5 in the North

  • 8 November 2006
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The last time I was in the British Army Palace Barracks in Holywood, on the outskirts of East Belfast, it was 1972. I was arrested and taken there for interrogation. Palace Barracks was the site of the in-depth interrogation of republican detainees. We were beaten and subjected to noise and sleep deprivation, which were later declared by the European Court of Human Rights to be "ill-human and degrading treatment" – a modern euphemism for torture.

Palace Barracks now has a new claim to fame. It is the new home of the British Security Service – MI5. According to the British government, MI5 will now assume for the North "the lead responsibility it has had for national-security intelligence work" for some time in Britain.

MI5 is a not a new player on the intelligence scene in the six counties. No more than MI6 in the 26 counties.

Only this week the Irish government received a report on collusion from a four-strong international panel of legal experts. They examined 76 cases between 1972 and 1977 related to unionist paramilitary actions operating out of south Armagh. They concluded that 74 of these involved collusion between members of the RUC, Ulster defence regiment and unionist death squads, and that senior officers within the British system "failed to act or punish" those responsible.

None of this is new. The British have a long history of involvement in spying, spooks, the running of double agents, informers and agent provocateurs – and Dublin Castle, the colonial seat of government for the British in Ireland for centuries, was a byword for spies and torture.

MI5 and MI6 emerged in 1909 out of a crisis in Europe and concern within the British government about imminent war and invasion. Over the years, the role of both agencies has shifted and changed as the British domestic and international situation has evolved. But throughout this time the two intelligence agencies retained an involvement in both parts of Ireland. This took on greater significance with the onset of conflict in 1969.

With 1970 came the beginning of a plethora of British intelligence agencies operating in the north. MI5 and the RUC's Special Branch were joined by the Force Research Unit, the British Army's Intelligence Corps, the Military Reconnaissance Force, the 14th Intelligence Company and a host of smaller, specialist intelligence sub-groups. They all participated in intelligence-gathering and the use of black propaganda and dirty tricks, through to the training and running of unionist death squads. And their efforts were interlocked and connected.

MI5 is the senior agency. It is under the control of the Joint Intelligence Committee which is directly responsible to the cabinet and to Downing Street. It is hard to find out how much money and numbers of staff it has. The Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the British Government's Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) are all funded from the Single Intelligence Account. This year the three will spend almost £1.5bn. MI5 allocated 23 per cent of these resources to Ireland.

In recent years the Bloody Sunday tribunal, the commission of inquiry into the Dublin, Monaghan and Dundalk bomb attacks in 1974, and the various investigations involving Stevens and Stalker into collusion, all faced serious obstacles when seeking cooperation and information from MI5.

The judge who investigated the killing of Pat Finucane detailed a number of occasions when MI5 was aware of plans to kill Finucane, which were not passed on to him. Nor were any "steps taken to intervene or halt the attack". The judge concluded that the conduct of MI5 fell "within the definition of collusion". However, the inquiry he recommended, and which the Finucane family demands, has yet to be established.

MI5 was also involved in Operation Torsion, along with the PSNI's Special Branch. In October 2002 the powersharing government in the North was brought down as a result of Operation Torsion.

More recently, the British government outlined MI5 plans to second PSNI officers for MI5 work. In other words, elements of the PSNI will work for MI5.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin's aim has been to achieve a democratically accountable, representative, civic policing service. We want to bring an end to partisan political policing.

At the core of the outstanding policing issues is the matter of transfer of power from London to Belfast – from British ministers to locally accountable ministers in a restored executive. But this issue of MI5 involvement in the PSNI is a huge issue also.

It is clear that there is no place in an acceptable service for a force within a force. That was part of the problem with the old RUC. Surely no democrat could stand for a force within a force in the PSNI. There can be no role in civic policing in Ireland for MI5.