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Sham row over 'FBI-style' body hides scandal of MI5

That chortling sound you hear in the background as nationalist parties joust with Justice Minister David Ford over plans for an 'FBI-style' body to combat organised crime is MI5 officers in their Loughside HQ celebrating the fact that they are still getting away with it.

Amid the debate about how, if possible, to make the proposed National Crime Agency accountable to the public through their elected representatives, there's been but passing reference to the huge and expanding role of the least accountable body involved in policing.

The Army's Force Research Unit (FRU) and RUC Special Branch have rightly been given a drubbing for their involvement with the UDA in procuring the murder of Pat Finucane and others, which is not to say that the whole truth of these matters has been told, or justice done.

But it seems largely forgotten that MI5, too, was up to its oxters in the same collusion.

In the Panorama programmes in 2002 which exposed the extent of collusion in the Finucane murder, John Ware reported that: "Almost everything we've disclosed about Army and police complicity with loyalist murder-gangs was known to MI5 at the time... MI5 had direct access to all the Army's damning secret files on a daily basis."

Indeed, MI5 and FRU officers shared desks at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn throughout the late-1980s heyday of joint operations between loyalist paramilitaries and state bodies.

And yet, in his Commons speech in December apologising for the murder of the Belfast solicitor, David Cameron made only glancing mention of MI5. Indeed, the phrase 'MI5' wasn't uttered. Nor even 'the Security Service'. The agency was instead included in the imprecise category of 'security services'.

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Summing up his apology and pledge of a new beginning, Cameron told MPs that: "The Force Research Unit and the Special Branch of the RUC have both gone. And the PSNI is today one of the most scrutinised police forces in the world. It is accountable to local ministers and a local Policing Board."

But no mention of the fact that far from being "gone", the third agency involved in collusion and killing had, in the interim, been given 'primacy' over all policing matters touching on national security.

As for the PSNI being "one of the most scrutinised police forces in the world... accountable to local ministers and a local Policing Board", this reflects either sheer cynicism or, just possibly, culpable ignorance.

Since MI5's lead role was formalised in 2007, following policing agreement at St Andrews, the PSNI - including the chief constable - is forbidden from discussing with the Policing Board, or the Minister for Justice, any aspect of policing involving national security without the permission of the NIO or MI5 itself.

And MI5 will decide what constitutes 'national security'.

A memorandum of understanding unearthed by the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) tells that: "When considering whether disclosure of information could create a risk of damage to national security, if the chief constable is in any doubt as to whether he is in an appropriate position to make the required judgment, he will consult the secretary of state." Moreover: "The Policing Board has locus only in relation to the PSNI; and the chief constable will not disclose information from, or relating to, the Security Service [MI5] without its authority."

In practical terms, MI5 can gag the PSNI any time it chooses. The spy agency's own website cheerfully announces that: "It has been the policy of successive governments and the practice of parliament not to define the term [national security] in order to retain the flexibility necessary to ensure that the use of the term can adapt to changing circumstances."

Looked at in a certain light, this is so neat, it's beautiful. The restriction on the chief constable's right to report to the justice minister, or the Policing Board, applies not just to activities involving MI5, but to "any aspect of the PSNI's work (past, present or future) with a national security element" - with MI5, again, deciding which PSNI activities fall into this category.

And since MI5's interventions will themselves be kept secret (so as not to compromise national security), there is no way any member of the Policing Board, or official of the Justice Department, can know for certain whether information brought forward by the chief constable, or corporately by the PSNI, is the truth, the whole truth, or anything but the truth.

When it comes to issues that matter to the state, policing accountability is a sham and the heated exchanges over David Ford's proposal of a policing role here for the National Crime Agency is the political equivalent of the Sham Fight.