Why bill for informers is a price worth paying
The truth is that it is only the tip of the iceberg, and, though it needs careful control, this budget may be the best money the police service ever spent.
The £450,000 figure is paid to those who inform on the loyalist paramilitaries and criminal gangs, two groups who are not judged a threat to UK national security. This is the relatively clean end of the business. Such informers are now termed Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHISes), they have legal rights and their handling is strictly regulated.
The targets don't include dissident republicans – they are generally handled by MI5 who pay bigger bucks for information and are less bound by rules and regulations. That was also the way with the old RUC Special Branch whose budget for paramilitary agents was doled out by MI5 from secret funds. MI5 also set the intelligence priorities.
With local control of policing, and the scrutiny that brought to PSNI operations through the Ombudsman and Policing Board, the middle-man was removed. MI5 took direct control of republican informants in 2007, except the odd one who might be run by the police or customs to combat fuel laundering and smuggling.
The importance of MI5's Northern Ireland role is shown by the fact that it shares Thames House in London with the Northern Ireland Office.
A dinner was held to mark the handover. At the gathering, Chris Albiston, former head of RUC Special Branch, told 300 guests that "in an attempt to belittle your efforts and to rewrite history, the word 'collusion' has been bandied about in a disgraceful, irresponsible and potentially libellous fashion".
He added that some members of the power-sharing Executive "would really not be too keen on any public revelations of the truth about the last 35 years".
Was this intelligence insider hinting that agents of influence had helped steer the peace process which led to the Good Friday Agreement?
The list of influential republicans now confirmed as Troubles- era intelligence agents is very long, so let's take just three examples. Freddie Scappaticci headed the IRA's internal security department responsible for rooting out other agents but reported everything to the British Army who codenamed him Stakeknife. Willie Carlin, a former British soldier, argued enthusiastically for peace within Derry Sinn Fein and reported all he heard to intelligence handlers. Denis Donaldson first ran Sinn Fein's operations in America and later managed their office in Stormont.
Of course, the events that led to the Good Friday Agreement were mainly political, and the use of agents was a dirty game, but intelligence penetration also had positive effects.
At a time of conflict, double dealing and divided loyalties can help each side grasp the other's true position and capability.
The paradoxical value of treachery in building understanding between uncommunicative enemies was grasped by Sun Tzu 2,500 years ago. The Chinese strategist observed that "to know your enemy you must first become your enemy".