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GCHQ may be spying on Northern Ireland Assembly members after policy change, claims Amnesty

Attwood: Our democracy has been hard won and cannot be vulnerable to the unaccountable reach of GCHQ

By Gary Fennelly and PA

Published 04/08/2015

Reports claim GCHQ is now able to intercept communications of devolved assembly members in the UK
Reports claim GCHQ is now able to intercept communications of devolved assembly members in the UK

Northern Ireland Assembly members may be under surveillance by UK spy agency GCHQ.

Amnesty International has written to all members of the Northern Ireland Assembly warning them that their communications could be under surveillance.

The move follows reports that GCHQ is no longer applying the so-called 'Wilson doctrine' to members of devolved assemblies in the UK.

The Wilson doctrine, named after former prime minister Harold Wilson, protects MPs’ phones and electronic communications. GCHQ has previously also applied it to the communications of MLAs and MEPs.  However, recent reports suggest that this is now no longer the case following a change in policy by the spy agency.

The policy change now means that members of devolved administrations and MEPs no longer have these protections.

The guidelines in place before March stated: "As a matter of policy GCHQ applies the principles of the Wilson doctrine to Members of the House of Commons, Members of the House of Lords, UK MEPs, and members of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies."

The new guidelines state: "The doctrine does not apply to ... the interception of communications of Members of the European Parliament or devolved assemblies."

Amnesty NI director Patrick Corrigan said: "The change in GCHQ’s interpretation of the Wilson doctrine illustrates why mass surveillance is so damaging to a free society. If our elected representatives are not safe from the spies, who is?

"For the rules on spying on elected representatives across the UK to change without any sort of public scrutiny or accountability, is outrageous. We need to know from the Northern Ireland Executive, what - if anything - they knew about this change.

"Amnesty International fought through 18 months of litigation at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and a wall of denials to get confirmation that we were also subject to mass surveillance by the UK Government via GCHQ.

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International

"They finally admitted that not only had GCHQ been spying on us, but what’s more that it had acted illegally, breaking its own policy on storing our data and communications.

"As human rights campaigners, this is a matter of very serious concern. We work with victims of government abuses who are understandably afraid that their confidential communications with us might be read by hostile governments.

"Like MPs and MLAs, the people Amnesty talk to rely on and trust that confidentiality, and so GCHQ’s behaviour puts at risk our ability to do our jobs well and safely.

"Our inadequate surveillance laws are failing to keep the spies in check and must be urgently reviewed and reformed. That’s why we’re calling for an independent inquiry into how the UK intelligence agency has been spying on human rights organisations. We hope that elected representatives in Northern Ireland will now join with us in making that call."

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SDLP MLA Alex Attwood told the Belfast Telegraph that members of the Assembly must be off-limits to GCHQ "as should members of all devolved assemblies".

Mr Attwood said: "The Northern Ireland government should join with the Scots and Welsh and call for and win this protection for all our parliamentary members.

"Our democracy has been hard won and cannot be vulnerable to the unaccountable reach of GCHQ."

Last month Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was seeking assurances from David Cameron after reports of the rule change. The Scottish First Minister has written to the Prime Minister calling on him to clarify whether communications from MSPs have been intercepted by the intelligence agencies .

Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government had not been consulted on the apparent change and urged Mr Cameron to confirm that the Wilson doctrine remains in place in Scotland.

She wrote: " I am sure you will agree with me that, excepting truly exceptional circumstances involving national security, the confidentiality of communications between parliamentarians and their constituents is of the utmost importance.

"I am sure you will also agree that it is just as important for MSPs as it is for MPs. This principle of confidentiality is what the 'Wilson doctrine' was introduced to protect.

"You will therefore understand my concern at suggestions in the Daily Record and elsewhere - reportedly supported by documentation shown to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal - that, while GCHQ had been applying the Wilson doctrine to the communications of MSPs, that is no longer the case."

The First Minister called on the Prime Minister to clarify whether there had in fact been a change in policy and if so when the decision was taken and who was aware of it.

She also sought assurances that if the reports are true, the policy change will be reversed and MSPs will be treated equally to MPs.

Northern Ireland Assembly representatives have been asked to comment on the claims.

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