Right to be concerned at re-hiring ex-RUC officers, but do we want a repeat of 'expertise gap' that led to Northern Bank robbery
Published 27/03/2014 | 10:11
Former IRA hunger striker and now non-violent republican dissident Gerard Hodgins was surely right when he advised those in the still-violent anti-ceasefire camp that the state had its eyes trained on their organisations 24/7.
The number of arrests and convictions – Maghaberry prison alone is home to more than 40 dissident republican inmates – alongside the well-documented thwarted armed attacks point to paramilitary groups that are both heavily infiltrated and under near-permanent hi-tech surveillance.
However, the problem for those politicians who want – rightly – to see the further de-militarisation and normalisation of Northern Ireland society is that much of the successes against the New IRA, Oglaigh na hEireann and Continuity IRA stems from two sources: the Garda Siochana and MI5 operating out of its regional base on the edge of Holywood.
By contrast, there has been some evidence in recent years of 'an intelligence gap' existing within the Police Service of Northern Ireland regarding emerging names and faces from inside the diverse, often fractious anti-ceasefire republican forces.
One of the interesting side-facts to emerge from the IRA's robbery of the Northern Bank, for instance, was that there had been a dearth of intelligence within the PSNI about the Provisionals' intentions and operations.
The retirement of hundreds of so-called 'Chis' operatives – a fancy acronym for informers, or agents – during Sir Hugh Orde's early reign as PSNI chief constable left the police with dramatically fewer 'eyes and ears' within the wider republican community, although this has to be tempered by the fact that long-term British agents within the higher echelons of the IRA remained in place.
It is worth recalling the alleged existence of an "intelligence gap" when considering the incredible amount of money the PSNI has spent since 2002 effectively re-hiring officers from the old RUC as part-time agency staff.
The sums are staggering: a £106m bill in the post-Patten reform era for ex-RUC officers; the increase of these veterans's numbers going back into the PSNI on a temporary basis from 100 in 2002 to 800 five years later and, by March 2012, almost 75% of part-time agency workers within the police service coming from ex-RUC personnel.
You wonder if the recruitment agency that brought back these retired policemen and women had to go searching for them in every holiday home complex, beach and golf course along places like the Costa Del Sol to persuade them to come back home to earn a few extra bob propping up the PSNI.
The presence of so many ex-RUC officers back on the PSNI's payroll suggests problems with personnel and, more critically, expertise.
Some of the most experienced and, when it comes to anti-paramilitary operations, expert police officers have, of course, gone further afield to earn money in the private sector.
Several former RUC senior commanders have worked with fledgling police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan since the war on terror was launched after 9/11.
During George W Bush's second presidential term, senior American officials, who were also involved in the St Andrews Agreement, told this writer that the US security establishment appeared equally, if not more, interested in gleaning information from ex-RUC detectives about the creation of a network of informants within terror groups and how they could manipulate armed conflicts (which was probably one of the legion of reasons why the mission in Iraq was blighted from the start).
Those politicians who complain about the re-hiring of old RUC personnel should remind themselves that some of them signed up to a political arrangement at St Andrews in 2006, which effectively handed over control of anti-terrorist policy to the Security Service (MI5).
It is MI5 which now takes the lead in the covert war to counter the dissident republican threat, while the PSNI relies heavily on the intelligence-feed running from south to north via the Garda's network of informers in the Republic.
The presence and leading role of MI5 in counter-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland is a much bigger and more embarrassing headache for those who object to the overspend in relation to the "old wine in new bottles" that have come back into the PSNI.
The Executive and the Department of Justice specifically have no operational control over what the Security Service is up to in the province.
There were and are, of course, understandable concerns about any ex-RUC officers who had past form in the running of agents within both republican and loyalist organisations.
The morally questionable handling of informants who were directly involved in crimes up to and including murder – such as UVF/Special Branch double agent Mark Haddock – has been one of the biggest scandals of the post-ceasefires era.
The cleaning out of these state agents was part of the purgation of policing that was necessary once the peace process became embedded.
However, the History of the Secret War Part 2: the post-peace process era has yet to be written, or even cursorily explored.
Don't be surprised to learn about new scandals in the near future involving dissident republican activists committing crimes while all the time working for MI5 as state assets.