It is a dangerous business — and those who play in this deadly game know the risks.
The latest figures released to this newspaper tell only part of the story — what the police are paying to get inside information on different criminal gangs, including those involved in drugs.
It is money for intelligence that allows them to break up and disrupt activities and make arrests at the high end of organised crime, in which some loyalists and dissident republicans are involved.
That underworld in which they operate was recently described by one source as “Sopranos with Irish names”.
But there is another set of figures not disclosed; the MI5 National Security budget and payments that relate to intelligence information specific to terrorist threats.
In other words, the money that is banked by those Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) who are paid for what they know and what they tell about dissident activity.
The idea that this is some kind of rich man’s world is a myth.
“Even at the top end of things, it’s not ridiculous money,” one source said. “People would be amazed.”
Amazed, he means, at how relatively little is paid in a world in which there is much more risk than reward.
That risk was explained in something a senior Special Branch source once said to me. “Every time we use a source, we take a bit of their life,” he said.
And many of us will remember the images of bodies dumped on the border, and the statements from organisations including the IRA revealing the ‘touts’ or ‘traitors’ or ‘collaborators’; men and women who had been found out, interrogated and then executed.
We get some idea of the type of payments made in the Police Ombudsman’s report of Operation Ballast and its information relating to the UVF figure Mark Haddock, who is not named but described as ‘Informant 1’.
That report — in 2007 — told us that over a 12-year period stretching from 1991-2003, he had been paid more than £79,000.
But the story and interest in this case was not about the money, but his alleged involvement in murder and other serious crime while in the pay of Special Branch.
In those 12 years, Haddock had provided more than 400 pieces of intelligence, but had also been the subject of 500 pieces of intelligence provided by others.
About a year before these revelations, and after a report that an alleged agent was being paid £50,000 a year, I had spoken to an intelligence source about payments.
“There’s no way any of our sources were paid £1,000 a week,” he told me. “We had upper limits — nowhere near £50,000 a year.
“The top source in Belfast (a republican), still unexposed, was getting good money — (but) not £50,000 a year,” he said.
How money paid to agents and informers is hidden and spent is crucial to their survival.
In those murky worlds in which they operate, there is always deep suspicion, and to overspend or spend what you are not meant to have can prove fatal.
There is rarely mercy or forgiveness for the ‘tout’. And this is what the source meant about people being amazed — that there are those who risk their lives for relatively little reward.
Should the PSNI use paid informants?
NO says Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein member of the Policing Board
This is a substantial amount of money. At the Policing Board Sinn Fein have already asked for sight of the Surveillance Commissioners’ report — an annual audit into the use of informants by each force — which has been refused.
Our worry here is clearly about accountability. We have raised on a number of occasions issues around agents being able to break the law and vulnerable young people being approached to act as agents.
While everyone knows that any police service will use agents, our problem is the lack of accountability with which agents can be used. The bad practices in the past cannot be repeated.
YES says Jonathan Craig, DUP member of Policing Board
The use of informants is an integral part of policing. While others may not like that, no police force in the Western world can operate effectively without information flowing in to it.
In an ideal world, everybody would pass information on to the police willingly, but in reality that doesn’t happen.
Effective policing depends on information, and the reality is that some of it will come from paid informants.
Police need intelligence to stop crimes happening and keep everyone in our society safe.
Indeed, the figures will pale into insignificance when you consider the crimes solved and prevented by using intelligence.