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Inside MI5: My own safety does not keep me awake at night... you take certain measures and get on with life

Exclusive: In Day Two of our three-part look inside MI5 we talk to a spook tasked with thwarting terror

By Deborah McAleese

Published 09/08/2016

MI5 agents must work with whistle-blowers to obtain secrets vital to access intelligence. Image posed by models
MI5 agents must work with whistle-blowers to obtain secrets vital to access intelligence. Image posed by models
MI5 headquarters inside Palace Barracks, Holywood, Co Down
Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent in Homeland

In her bootcut jeans, trainers and T-shirt, she could easily be the girl next door. Mel is in her 30s. She is pretty, fresh-faced and smiley. She also laughs a lot.

You could imagine her as the life and soul of the party during a night out with the girls.

But behind the smiles and laughter lies a secret that only her closest family members know. Mel is an MI5 spy, highly trained in espionage and the use of informants.

During six years operating in Northern Ireland, the information she has uncovered has helped prevent innumerable terrorist atrocities.

I am introduced to Mel - I'm not completely convinced that is her real name - in a small interview room at MI5's Northern Ireland headquarters.

In a remarkable interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mel opens up about what it is really like to work for one of the most shadowy organisations in the world.

More: Dissidents 'highly capable' of carrying out attack in Britain

It is Mel's job to find people with access to secret intelligence about Northern Ireland's terrorist groups, and build a relationship with them to obtain the secrets.

These whistle-blowers are known as agents; their handlers, like Mel, are called intelligence officers.

With the threat from dissident republican terrorists 'severe' in the province and 'substantial' across other parts of the UK, gleaning information from these agents about the terrorists and their operations is vital.

To an outsider, her job may sound like the stuff of Bond movies. But while television series such as Spooks have glamorised life in Britain's secret services, Mel is quite unfazed by it all.

"It's not that different to any other job really. I have normal working hours and I don't take work home. I spend a lot more time at my desk than people would think. There is a lot of paperwork to make sure we are authorised and covered legally to go out and meet agents," she explained.

Mel joined MI5 straight from university where she had been studying sciences.

Gone are the days when agents were recruited after a discreet tap on the shoulder at their university. Today, spooks are recruited like anyone else. Posts are publicly advertised, and hopefuls must first sit tests devised to reveal their powers of analysis and observation.

"It was the last year of my degree and I was looking out for jobs. I applied through the MI5 website. It was a very lengthy process of interviews and assessments. It was never something I had thought about before, but as I got further into the recruitment process the more excited I became," she said.

That was 10 years ago, six of which have been spent, on and off, in Northern Ireland, recruiting individuals to do difficult and dangerous things, sometimes betraying family and friends.

So how does she do it? Money? Charm? Coercion?

"We don't coerce people or blackmail them. That's not the start of a good, trusting relationship. We start off setting out to the individual who we are as an organisation. If that is not enough to convince someone then it is best to leave it. It can be an uphill struggle over here because of how you are seen as an organisation. I think it is a shame.

"It is about finding the right place at the right time. Everyone is different so your approach varies.

"The whole point of it is getting that piece of information. That information is then fed in and combined with other things to build a picture. Very often the agents add context to information already held. That information saves lives. It is really important. I have the utmost respect for the people I meet. They are very brave people.

"It all comes down to trust. You build up that trust with people and they trust your judgment. Trust is something that is built up over time. You can't expect someone to trust you right away. But you do build up a friendship.

"People do it for different reasons. Motivation varies massively. For some it can be money, for others it is because they genuinely want to save lives," Mel explained.

It all sounds a bit like Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent in American TV drama Homeland who recruits sources where nobody else can.

But Mel couldn't be more opposite to the blonde, highly strung, bipolar Mathison if she tried, from her dark hair to her calm persona.

I told her she was not what I was expecting. That she appeared to be more yoga teacher than hardcore spy.

"I'm just normal," she laughed.

"Carrie Mathison annoyed me. I had to turn it off, she annoyed me that much. She is nothing like me.

"You wouldn't be able to do your job if you were that highly strung. The risks are too high.

"Being able to cope under pressure is very important. You must have the ability to think clearly under pressure. You're responsible for that agent's safety and security. That is foremost in your mind when dealing with an agent. We put a lot of effort into protecting an agent's safety. If anything happened you would lose support in a community."

So how does Mel describe herself?

"I would describe myself as being measured, calm and considered. I don't get fazed very easily. I like the idea of getting out and meeting people, and being at the front end of what is going on," she said.

I asked what it felt like to obtain information that helped foil a terror attack? It must be a real buzz?

"It is great when you are involved in that sort of thing. It is what we join to do. We are here to stop the attacks. It is a good moment.

"There is a whole team of people, it's not just the information I get. But it does feel good," she stated.

Mel was surprised when I asked if she ever felt lonely leading such a secret life?

"No, not at all. I have friends!" she responded.

But it must be a tremendous psychological strain, not being able to be open with friends and family, I suggested to her.

"I don't find it difficult to have relationships. I just don't talk about my job. I find my conversations with people are much more interesting as a result of us not talking about work.

"If you have a bad day at work, we talk to each other. There is a real team effort. It's a very open environment to work in," she explained.

And what about the danger her job brings, especially in Northern Ireland where MI5 spooks would be prize targets for dissident republicans?

"It's not something I worry about too much. Northern Ireland can get a bit of a bad press. We take a lot of measures for our own safety. But it is not something that keeps me awake at night. You get on with your life. I go out, I go running, I meet people, I travel," she said.

And then my time was up. Mel had "things" to get back to.

As we said goodbye I suddenly realised that while she had been extremely chatty, she had somehow revealed very little.

"I am no different to anyone else," she again insisted as she left.

Somehow I doubt it.

Tomorrow: The jailed dissident gang, taken down by MI5, that could be set to take up violence again

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