Plans to give British military intelligence an enhanced role in the North of Ireland are being strongly opposed by nationalists.
MI5 is expected to be given the lead role in handling informers and agents in the North ahead of the PSNI Special Branch. The move was couched in new legislation being published today, intended to enable the potential transfer of policing and justice powers from London to any new Belfast administration.
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness said: “We are totally opposed to any MI5 role in intelligence gathering, let alone giving it the lead role.
“In the circumstances of restored political institutions, we believe it should be the responsibility of the government in the North (of Ireland) to deal with all of these matters.
“Anyone who knows anything about the history of MI5 knows it has played a very negative role in events in the North over the past 25 years.”
Mr McGuinness said that a member of MI5 once tried to encourage a leading unionist paramilitary to throw a large bomb through the window of a house he was living in in Derry.
“The experience of MI5 among republicans has been very bad and I have to say anyone who thinks it is acceptable for MI5 to have a role in intelligence gathering is living in cloud cuckoo land.”
The organisation is believed to be preparing to move from Stormont outside Belfast to a British Army barracks in Holywood, County Down in preparation for its increased duties.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan raised the issue with British prime minister Tony Blair yesterday when he met him in the London parliament.
PSNI chief Hugh Orde claimed that his primary function would now be combating crime and that therefore his men would handle informers in this area. But in an interview with the BBC he confirmed that MI5 would have the lead role in relation to “national security”, while the PSNI would deal with “republican criminality.”
Mr Orde described this change as a “very healthy split” of responsibilities.
Mr Durkan, however, said he was very concerned at the proposals.
“While the British government gives with one hand, with technical legislation facilitating the devolution of justice and policing, it is taking away with the other by removing intelligence gathering from the PSNI and giving it to the faceless men of MI5.
“This weakens accountability. It is bad for policing and bad for politics. It must be challenged,” he added.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly also said the proposals were “unacceptable”.
“The role of the securocrats within both the Special Branch and MI5 needs to be reduced and ended, not supported and expanded,” he said.