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Accountability for policing still the elephant in room

By Eamonn McCann

Published 05/08/2015

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton

The British security forces continue to be involved in policing in the north in spite of assurances that the PSNI alone would be responsible for law enforcement and answerable to the Policing Board. The assurance was important in persuading Sinn Fein to support policing.

Last Wednesday soldiers took part in raids on houses in Ederowen and Glendale Park in Galliagh in Derry in a joint operation with the PSNI. The raids came within days of an INLA mobilisation at the funeral of Peggy O'Hara.

Sinn Fein Policing Board member Gerry Kelly didn't conceal his anger at the soldiers' involvement: "The Good Friday Agreement and the promise of a new dispensation was about making the police accountable to the community and did not include the British Army."

SDLP Galliagh councillor Brian Tierney said his party would be demanding an explanation via the Policing Board. IRSP spokesman Danny Morrison fumed: "There are members of the British Army on our streets years after we were told they would have no active role in the North."

None of the parties specified any action they might take if the guarantees they had relied on were not reinstated.

Amid the flurry of protest, Foyle police chief Tony Callaghan seemed relaxed to the point of nonchalance: "The role of these military personnel is to search for munitions and explosive devices … (they) are specifically trained in this type of high-risk search."

No hint that deployment of soldiers in policing operations would be reconsidered.

Control and accountability was a big issue back in 2007 when the re-establishment of Stormont hung on whether Sinn Fein would meet the DUP's condition for power-sharing and formally support the PSNI. The same question arose this year in relation to the extension to the north of the remit of the National Crime Agency, established by the Home Office in 2013 to combat organised crime.

Chief Constable George Hamilton said: "I will ensure that the accountability arrangements being agreed with the Policing Board are factored into every aspect of operational activity."

In less convoluted terms - the board may be kept informed as appropriate of NCA activities, but will not have power to hold the agency to account.

Both major nationalist parties opposed the NCA move. Sinn Fein refused even to meet the Department of Justice to discuss it. A party source told this newspaper that Sinn Fein would "never" agree to an NCA role in policing. But it created no loud hullabaloo when the SDLP U-turned in February and gave the measure safe passage through the Assembly.

The elasticity of the concept of "never" became clear last month when Stormont finance committee chair Daithi McKay of Sinn Fein met with NCA officials to co-ordinate questioning of witnesses about the Nama affair. It is a measure of the extent to which the issue has faded that the meeting went almost unnoticed.

Then there's MI5. In its 2013 report, The Policing You Don't See, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) referred to "a parallel police force" dominated by MI5. The proposed role of MI5 was set out in Annex E of the St Andrews Agreement of October 2006. The passage's appearance in an annex, rather the in the body of the text, gave parties uncomfortable with the proposal some wriggle room - although not much.

Addressing "future national security arrangements in Northern Ireland", the document laid down that "lead responsibility" for matters which touched on national security would be passed to MI5 in late 2007.

The agency would set the "strategic direction" to be followed by the PSNI in operations to do with national security. Since MI5 itself determines in each case what constitutes "national security", it can take "lead responsibility" in any investigation it chooses.

MI5 has been guilty of collusion with paramilitary organisations, the concealment of evidence, the undermining and obstruction of police investigations, complicity in a murder spree, including the killing of Pat Finucane, and, at Kincora, in the scandal involving the sexual abuse of children.

Not long ago the issues emerging from the State's failure to deliver on its pledges on police accountability would have put the "peace process" in jeopardy. But this time, so far, no sign.

There is abrasion between the police and working class communities. In Galliagh, according to 2013 Government figures, 40% of children were living in poverty. The discontent arising, if not channelled correctly, will find an outlet elsewhere.

The pattern of control of policing may not rank high in the priorities of the people of Galliagh. But it's there and, against a background of hopelessness, it could yet prove a significant factor in the fate of the Stormont institutions.

Belfast Telegraph

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