A political row has erupted after it emerged that Sir Hugh Orde has enlisted the special forces to help the PSNI in the fight against terrorism.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have clashed with Sir Hugh over his decision to deploy specialist Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) officers to mount round-the-clock surveillance on suspected dissident republicans believed to be planning attacks in Northern Ireland.
Both parties held separate meetings with Sir Hugh yesterday to discuss their concerns over the move, which Sir Hugh was forced to admit less than a day after a meeting of the Policing Board was told of a high threat level from dissident republican terrorists.
Meanwhile, a leading victims’ group said it is considering legal action against the Chief Constable’s controversial decision.
Relatives for Justice director Mark Thompson said: “The policy decision to deploy special forces is a matter of policing policy and therefore, under Section 6 of the NI Police Act, a policy decision is for the Policing Board and not a matter for the Chief Constable to arbitrarily act without the expressed and independent authority of the Policing Board, which he did. Effectively his decision undermines the Policing Board.”
The DUP and UUP defended the move and said deploying the Special Reconnaissance Regiment was a national security issue, not a matter for the Policing Board.
The SSR, which specialises in surveillance and intelligence gathering, has also been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The SRR officers, who arrived in the region this week, are deploying the latest high-tech surveillance technology to monitor dissidents.
After a meeting with Sir Hugh, the SDLP’s policing spokesman and Policing Board member, Alex Attwood, last night said serious questions need to be answered.
“First, why did the British Government not tell the public and the political parties that Army special forces might be deployed? They were asked a number of times about Army support to the PSNI — never did they say that this could happen, even though they must have known of the concern and fall-out from doing so. This is not just being economical with the truth — it is bad faith.
“Second, why did the Chief Constable not tell the Board long ago, never mind yesterday, that the deployment had happened?
“This issue was too sensitive and too big not to mention. This should have happened. It didn’t. This was wrong. Is there anything else that we should know and are not being told?
“Third, the hands of MI5 are all over this development. No-one should diminish the security threat or deny that there is a need for a full policing response but the PSNI and the British Government have got this badly wrong. It will take serious effort, honest answers, new oversight and a different approach to turn things around.”
And Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey said: “Sinn Fein remains opposed to any such deployment of these forces and remains committed to ensuring that the PSNI is held to account for an effective, efficient and non-political policing service.”
However, Sir Hugh said: “There will be no troops back on the streets. I will die in a ditch over that — that is not going to happen.
“Every single one of those (SRR) people is under the control of the police. They have no executive powers and no executive capabilities.”