The story in Monday’s Guardian headed ‘MI5 targets dissidents as Irish terror threat grows’ was based on information supplied by MI5. Even so, it might be true. Let’s see.
The story told that: ‘Up to 60% of all the security service’s electronic intercepts — phone-taps and other covert technical operations — have come from (republican) dissidents ... Fears (are) escalating over the intent of republicans opposed to power-sharing in the province ... 80 hardcore dissidents may be plotting terrorist attacks.’
The kernel of hard news was that MI5 has now ‘completely taken over surveillance operations from police in Northern Ireland’. This significant change was thus announced not in a statement to Parliament nor in a NIO press release but in a leak from MI5.
Old newspaper hands will recall that once upon a time it was the old rascal Chapman Pincher of the Daily Express to whom the spooks would leak their latest yarn. How times change! Or not.
The timing and source of the story suggest that it had more to do with political manoeuvre than with operational change.
The figures cited strengthen the suspicion. More than half of MI5’s intercepts come from 80 ‘hardcore’ members of the Real IRA/Continuity IRA? Fewer than half from Islamic militants, agents of foreign governments and all other perceived threats to British State security combined?
In November last year, in his first public speech as director general of MI5, Jonathan Evans outlined the threat he believed would have to be countered in the future. “MI5 has now identified around 2,000 individuals who we believe pose a direct threat to national security ... This increase ... is due both to improved coverage of extremist communities and to the continued flow of new recruits to the extremist cause." He was referring specifically to Islamic groups, and made no mention of Irish republicans.
Eight months later, more than half of the service’s surveillance traffic arises from the targeting of 80 republicans? It’s preposterous. But it makes sense if the point of the exercise is to pressurise Executive parties into accepting the devolution of police and justice powers without further delay.
Can the DUP continue to delay resolution of the issue if the threat from ‘dissidents’ is as massive and urgent as MI5 now says?
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein will be content that a political safety wall is already in place between itself in the Executive and the Defence of the Realm.
In fact, the division between national security and policing and justice will not be as neat or complete as this might imply. Take 42-day detention. In many, if not most, cases the arrest of suspects later subjected to the measure would be carried out by the PSNI. The ‘robust judicial scrutiny’ of 42-day applications would be undertaken by Northern Ireland judges. Blair’s assurance to Sinn Fein in January last year that MI5 would be a ‘stand-alone’ body and would not become enmeshed in devolved institutions will, in practice, prove worthless. (No change there, then.)
The demeaning and anomalous situation which will result had been signalled in an exchange between Alex Attwood of the SDLP and senior officials of the Northern Ireland Office at an Assembly committee inquiry into devolution of policing and justice in July last year. Seven MLAs attended: Jeffrey Donaldson, (DUP, chairman), Attwood (SDLP), Nelson McCausland (DUP), Ian McCrea (DUP), Alan McFarland (UUP), John O’Dowd (SF) and George Robinson (DUP). NIO representatives were Peter May and Clare Salters. The minutes show that only Attwood and McFarlane put questions to the officials. Procedural interventions by the chairman apart, none of the DUP/SF MLAs appears to have spoken.
Attwood asked how the relationship between the local institutions and security operations would work under the proposed new arrangements. “There is a credibility gap between the proposals on national security ... and the authority of those (devolved) institutions?”
May: “National security is an excepted matter that will not be transferred to the devolved administration. Where the work of the devolved administration touches on matters that are national security-related, it will be necessary to consider whether devolved ministers require access to national security information and, if so, what level of that information they might receive ... ”
So, when there’s an overlap between policing and security operations, as in the instances mentioned above, the British Minister — advised, it goes without saying, by MI5 — would determine what information, if any, the imperial authorities would allow the provincial politicians to have sight of.
Attwood pressed: “You have said that sufficient and appropriate information should be made available?
Mr May: “Yes, that is the objective.”
Attwood: “What does that mean and how will that be done?”
Answer came there none.
The result is that MI5, up to its neck in the dossier of lies which led Britain into the disastrous Iraq adventure, implicated in scandals in the North from the Kincora Boys’ Home to the murder of Pat Finucane, puppet-masters of the mass murderer and IRA leader Freddie Scappaticci etc, etc, the State body which, above all others, on the evidence, requires to be held to account, has been given free rein to operate across the North without scrutiny, much less control, by any local body.
All with the endorsement of Sinn Fein and in the name of making policing and justice accountable to the people and giving local institutions control.
Thus does the Belfast/Good Friday/St Andrews Agreement proceed.
Someone to watch over us? The London HQ of MI5, which claims there’s a renewed terror threat